You’re running a little restaurant in the Midlands, Britain. A family come in and order cawl, Cullen skink, partan bree, skirlie, Arbroath smokies, collops, a large Melton Mowbray (with a side of neeps) and some clootie for dessert. What do you bring them?
Answer: lamb and leek broth, seafood soup, crab in cream, oats fried with onions, whole smoked haddock, sliced meat, cold pork pie (with mashed turnips) and boiled fruit pudding. But doesn’t it sound better in the original?
This is a detective story, and the story began long ago, when I was reading Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. If you don’t already know it, Roald Dahl really knew how to write for children. He focused obsessively on food, for one thing, Charlie and Chocolate Factory being the perfect example. I, however, have always preferred savoury foods, so it was the descriptions in Champion of roast pheasant (“don’t forget, Danny, before we put the bird in the oven, we have to lay strips of fat bacon across the breast to keep it nice and juicy. And breadsauce, too. We shall have to make breadsauce. You must never have roasted pheasant without lashings of breadsauce. There are three things you must always have with roasted pheasant – breadsauce, potato chips, and boiled parsnips”) Yorkshire pudding (“My mum could make toad-in-the-hole like nobody else in the world. She did it in an enormous pan with the Yorkshire pudding very brown and crisp on top and raised up in huge bubbly mountains. In between the mountains you could see the sausages half buried in the batter. Fantastic it was”) aniseed balls (“The trick with aniseed balls is never to bite them. If you keep rolling them around in your mouth, they will dissolve slowly of their own accord, and then, right in the very centre, you will find a tiny brown seed. This is the aniseed itself, and when you crush it between your teeth, it has a fabulous taste”) and, most riveting for me, the cold pie Doc Spencer brings Danny on the day after his father is injured.
“Very carefully, I now began to unwrap the waxed paper from around the doctor’s present, and when I had finished, I saw before me the most enormous and beautiful pie in the world. It was covered all over, top, sides, and bottom, with rich golden pastry. I took a knife from beside the sink and cut out a wedge. I started to eat it in my fingers, standing up. It was a cold meat pie. The meat was pink and tender with no fat or gristle in it, and there were hard boiled eggs buried like treasures in several different places. The taste was absolutely fabulous. When I had finished the first slice, I cut another and ate that, too.”
I have always been hypnotized by this description, but how to reproduce it? No recipe is included, not even in Memories with Food at Gipsy House, his cookbook, which I searched first. A certain amount of detective work was required.
Like any detective, I began by examining the clues. What did we know, I mean really know, about the pie in question? The facts, ma’am? From the sole passage Dahl left us with, we know these things:
- The pie is eaten in England.
- The pie is served cold.
- The pie is enormous.
- The pie has sides, which indicate it is a ‘tall’ pie, not a ‘flat’ pie such as an apple pie. An apple pie is encased in a top and bottom crust like a flying saucer. A tall pie is hand formed or made in a mould and resembles a drum. We have further confirmation from this in the beautiful illustration by Jill Bennett. Bennet was one of Dahl’s original illustrators, and if it were up to me, Quentin Blake would still be waiting for the phone to ring.
- The meat in the pie is pink.
- The pie contains whole hard boiled eggs.
I began with the first point. Was there, in fact, a tradition of cold meat pies in Britain, or was this just freeform culinary magic whipped up Doc Spencer’s wife, or, more accurately, Roald Dahl’s appetite? It did not take much research to find out that cold meat pies are in fact a British (and New Zealand, interestingly) staple, and that the meat is pork. That took care of points 1 and 2, and solves the question of the meat, which is not specified. However – when pork is cooked, it turns grey, and does not remain pink… unless it is preserved pork. Wikipedia describes the “common pork pie” as follows:
“The common pie uses cured meat. Often produced in moulds or forms, it gives the outside of the pie a very regular shape and the inside filling a pink colour. It is easier, simpler and cheaper to produce in volume, and hence the more common choice for commercial manufacturers.”
Yet this description does not exactly fit our suspect. For one thing, Doc Spencer specifically tells Danny that his wife made the pie, rather than buying it at Sainsburys. Hard boiled eggs are nowhere included. Could the pie in question be Roald Dahl’s description of the handmade, artisanal pork pie known as the Melton Mowbray, after its place of origin in Leicestershire? The Melton Mowbray pie is a premium price pie and as such the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association have been granted protection under the “Protected designation of origin” laws. In other words, just as champagne can come only from Champagne, France, a Melton Mowbray can come only from Melton Mowbray, England.
I returned to point 1. Where, so far as I could specify, did Champion take place? Six and a half miles from Hazell’s wood, where Danny and his father go to poach pheasants from the extremely unpleasant landowner Victor Hazell. Did Hazell’s wood exist? It turns out that many Dahl fans have already done their research into the real life location of Champion, and the consensus is that, due to landmarks described (Cobbler’s Hill, the road to Wendover,etc), it takes place in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, where Dahl lived in the 1960s, and is buried today. There is no Hazell’s Wood in Great Missenden, but there is a similar wood called Shortenill’s Wood. Good enough for me. Now how far is Great Missenden from Melton Mowbray? According to Google maps, the two towns are 100 miles apart travelling on modern freeways. That’s a fair fraction of the United Kingdom. My conclusion, therefore, is that the pie in question is not a Melton Mowbray, and Doc Spencer’s wife was left to fall back on her own devices and grand tradition of home cooking.
Well, there I was. I knew the meat of the pie and that it was homemade. All that was left was to make one.
Roald Dahl Pork Pie
The British cold pork pie requires three things: pastry, filling, and pork jelly, which is poured in a hole in the top after the pie has been baked and left to set while the pie cools, holding everything together as well as being delicious in itself.
Pastry has never been my strong suit, and this pastry was tricky. It had to stand up on its own to form the sides. Most pork pies are made in a mould, but something told me Doc Spencer’s wife didn’t use a mould. So I made a pastry out of lard, flour and salt. I will not post the recipe because I’m not happy with it yet, and you could probably do better.
I’m a lot better with filling. I decided to use uncured pork (violating the description of the original with some pangs of regret). I used shoulder of pork, diced fine but not ground, salt, freshly ground pepper, dried sage and thyme, and a sprinkling of nutmeg. I also hard boiled an egg. I wasn’t making an ‘enormous’ pie (violating the description for the second time), so one would do, right smack in the centre.
This was the fun part. Jelly is essentially stock made from bones which has been reduced enough for the gelatin in the bones to overpower the water content and set. Of course, you could always use regular stock and add some aspic. My jelly recipe was something like:
2 lb pork bones (practically free at the Farmer’s market)
2 carrots, roughly chopped
1 onion, cut in half, unpeeled
2 sticks celery
2 bay leaves
sprigs of fresh parsley
1 tsp black peppercorns
a bare sprinkling of salt
This is my standard stock recipe. I just put everything in a large pan, cover it with cold water, and simmer for hours, skimming the foam where necessary. When I feel it has reduced enough (i.e. it tastes good), I strain out the ingredients. At this point I can continue to reduce the stock as needed. In this case, I wanted jelly, so I reduced and reduced and reduced. Once cooled, it congealed. I felt it could congeal just a little more, so when the time came I dissolved a little aspic into the hot stock.
Forming the case was the hardest part, but it was the whole point, wasn’t it? I rolled out 2/3 of the dough into a neat circle, then, like a potter, began pinching the edges up to form a nice squat pie with slightly bulging rounded sides, the sort of thing a hobbit would eat. It took a while and the pastry kept cracking, which is why I am not posting the recipe. The end result, for structural reasons, was thicker than it should have been, and while tasty, was not all edible. Never mind. Next time I’ll just use a mould.
In went the filling, with the hard boiled egg in the centre. Then with the remaining dough I made a pretty lid for the pie, sealing it well so the hot jelly would not leak out. I added two holes to admit a funnel, although I believe one is more traditional. Brushed the whole thing with beaten egg. In it went, to bake in the oven, 350 degrees F for about an hour, until golden brown.
When the pie was cool, I heated up my pork jelly into liquidity again, stirred in a touch of aspic, and poured the jelly in through the two holes in the top. It was the moment of truth. Would it leak all over the kitchen?
It didn’t leak. The final, triumphant pie went in the fridge to cool into solidity.
Oh, I am happy with my first pork pie. It was beautiful, the meat tasty, the hard boiled egg like a little hidden treasure as described, and the jelly delicious. The pastry was a little too thick. I will buy a small, tall pie mould when I can find one, and continue to experiment. But right now, I’m a little closer to the world of Roald Dahl, and that is reward in itself.