Another lockdown project to use up some time on a weekend: make a pie. I mean hey, I’ve made pies before, of course, of course. Never made the pastry before though, always relying on shop-bought pre-rolled shortcrust, the epitome of lazy, entitled metropolitan elitism. Can you call yourself a member of society if you’ve never before made shortcrust pastry? Should you be entitled to the vote, or even to use local council services like the library? Not unless you’re checking out a recipe book devoted solely to pastry and returning it lightly dusted with flour so the staff can verify it’s gone to good use, runs one school of thought.
I’ve stopped going to supermarkets. They still make me a bit nervous: you have to queue to get in, and no one waits for you to get out of the way in the narrow aisles, everybody quite happy to cough another human being to death just so they aren’t delayed ten seconds on their way to the pesto. I am splitting my grocery shopping between the local Mediterranean food store, where I go a couple of times a week about quarter to ten at night just before it closes when there’s no one around, and the Budgens at the 24-hour garage, despite its shameless price hikes lacking the community spirit you’d hope for in a time of crisis.
Inevitably, I’ve discovered that the Mediterranean place is brilliant, and I should’ve been buying all my fruit and vegetables there for years rather than just getting the odd thing that’s a bit exotic for the Co-op, because it’s great quality and cheap. They also have lots of stuff whose label I don’t understand because it’s all in foreign, but I buy anyway as an experiment, forcing me to get creative and find something to do with it. It also means I can feel smug about shopping locally. I must buy an organic cotton tote bag that says SHOP LOCAL on it so more people know I shop locally, and perhaps join a neighbourhood Facebook group so I can judge others for not shopping as locally as I do.
This has left me short on fresh meat, which Club Med doesn’t do and the garage does but only as an afterthought without much of an eye to quality, in the same way that London high street vape shops offer the service of unlocking your iPhone if pushed but their heart’s not in it, so a week ago I went to the butcher for the first time since All This Began. After a brief queue outside I bought some lamb neck and shoulder, a chicken and a couple of steaks to freeze. Reader, I roasted that chicken and this is that chicken.
Now I’ve had it again midweek with a few more of the roast potatoes, I want something to do with the leftovers a week later, and a pie is the obvious way forward. You make a pie, you get six slices, meaning you’ve got eight meals out of a four quid chicken, value that even the chicken would probably appreciate if it read a post about it on the MoneySavingExpert forums.
As with the shawarma and flatbreads, this is an affair to take up most of the afternoon. I stick on Paul McCartney’s 1997 album Flaming Pie while I start making the chicken stew for the filling. It feels quite appropriate in lockdown: an album made largely at home, recapturing a back-to-basics style of songwriting and recording he’d been reminded of after a couple of years working on the Beatles Anthology project. Acoustic guitars, bare feet and floorboards. It’s got a family feel to it too, with some guitar from his son and the last vocals Linda would contribute before she died in 1998.
I have for this stew some mushrooms, broccoli stalks and onions. But in the vegetable drawer my hand hovers. I have red chillies in here too. Now, I put chilli in a lot of things, but a pie? Has there ever been a chilli pie since Sir John Pie first bade his cook encase a dead goose in pastry and shove it in the oven in 1642? Moreover, has anyone ever stumbled upon such a happy marriage of dish and accompanying solo McCartney or Wings album? Back to the Egg, maybe. Pipes of Peas. Courgette Flowers in the Dirt.
The fact remains that putting chilli in a pie is wholly unnecessary. But chilli, once you’ve trained your tongue to accept it, brightens other flavours around it and lets you appreciate them all the more. You could argue that it has just as much right to live in a pie as does anything else. It goes in. Once the vegetables are coloured I strip what’s left of the chicken from its carcass, add some stock and leave it be for a while.
One of the things I like about Flaming Pie is its sense that McCartney’s accepted his place in the world. After years of being considered uncool, and a few more being thought “the unsophisticated one” after Lennon’s death in 1980 and subsequent canonising, in the nineties he was enjoying being cited as an influence on contemporary artists. Everyone thought for years he was the mushrooms in the pie. He wasn’t: he was the chilli. Did mushrooms immerse themselves in London’s mid-1960s avant garde scene and bring influences like Stockhausen and John Cage back to the studio while the other Beatles moved out to the stockbroker belt? Did mushrooms record the experimental solo album Mushrooms II in 1980, pointing the way towards British electronica before anyone else had bought themselves a synth, after nine days in a Tokyo jail for trying to bring marijuana into Japan? No, they just sat there, soaking up oil and stock.
It should go without saying that a pie has to have a bottom. If you spoon a load of stuff into a dish and lay some pastry on top of it then congratulations, you’ve got yourself some stuff with a lid on it. And you shouldn’t be ashamed of it, and you should spoon it into your face as happily as you like, but don’t come in here calling it a pie. From the basic pastry recipe I’ve found (salt, flour, butter, water) I can’t tell how much it’ll leave me with so I’ve left enough time to do two batches, which proves necessary.
As you always do, I’ve got little bits left over when I’ve laid the lid on and cut the excess flaps off the edges, so I arrange them artlessly in the middle in a sort of criss-cross affair with a little pastry ball in the centre. It’s the sort of flourish for which you’d praise your six-year-old while inwardly cursing the fact that you’re going to have to put it on the fridge and look at it every day for the next year.
Having made four or five pies before, I have never really stopped to interrogate why you do the fork crimping around the rim. To seal it, I suppose, but also because it lends an air of authenticity, perhaps. What, after all, are the universal signifiers of piehood? A crimped edge and a golden exterior is more or less all you can point to. I brush the surface with egg and give it 20 minutes.
What would Paul McCartney think of this pie? Would he appreciate the homage, accidental though it was? He’d only be able to judge its appearance, having been a vegetarian since 1975. Ditto Ringo Starr, who not only is a vegetarian but also has been able to stomach only bland food since a childhood bout of peritonitis. As a result he has never tried pizza, curry or onions, so you’d have to presume chilli is out. All I want to do is cook a meal that a surviving Beatle would approve of, so look out soon for marshmallow pie with a glass onion garnish.