THERE’S THIS cartoon I have of a man crawling across a desert. The caption says: “Water … water … and perhaps just a little piece of pie.”
The cartoon is pinned to the notice board in my office alongside a greetings card from former colleagues that says: “There are many types of food, some of which are pies and the rest of which should be pies.”
At Christmas last year, my daughter bought me a book by Angela Boggiano simply entitled Pie. And we dined – as we do most Christmases – on Beef Wellington, which is a kind of upmarket pie.
I admit, then, that I do have a Northern lad’s affinity for pies (broadcaster Stuart Maconies’ paeon to the North was entertainingly called Pies and Prejudice), but it isn’t simply a Northern thing is it?
We don’t have pie and mash shops in the North, that’s a London innovation (of which I approve), and Melton Mowbray – spiritual home of the pork pie – is 150 miles south of where I was born in what we would consider the Midlands.
Nor are Northern pies necessarily my favourites. The Kentish hop-picker’s pie sold at the Downingbury Farm Shop near Pembury is such a joy (I think it’s the Worcestershire sauce) that friends from up North devoured several while making those noises more usually associated with guests on early morning TV cookery programmes.
And one of my favourite haunts in the West End of London is not one of the 22 Michelin-starred restaurants, but a pub called The Windmill in Mill Street, which has its own pie club with 6,000 members. (Its website www.windmillmayfair.co.uk has some fine pie recipes). You need to get there early, by the way, since they don’t take bookings and, like the pies, it fills up quickly.
Despite all physical evidence to the contrary, I haven’t yet tried every pie pub in Kent and East Sussex, but of those I have, there are two I would unhesitatingly commend to you.
The first is The Camden Arms in Pembury, a warm and well-run pub with an extensive menu that allows you to choose either a suet pudding or a pie-crust casing for fillings of: steak & kidney; steak, mushroom & ale; beef mushroom & red wine; beef & stilton; game; turkey ham & leek or vegetable in cream sauce, all at £9.45 each.
The Camden Arms also does cottage pie and a very good fish pie. Fish pie – with a crusty cheese and mashed potato topping – is what a chap eats on a “light” day, and is worthy of a separate feature sometime.
It’s a friendly pub, The Camden Arms, with guest rooms, a proper dining room and a menu that includes a huge spicy rack of ribs with chips and coleslaw (£14.99), beef stroganoff with rice (£15.95) and prawn Marie Rose on farmhouse bread served with chips (£7.95). Handy if you’re into retro food. You get good portions at The Camden Arms too.
The second I’d recommend is the Middle House at Mayfield – a pretty village built on wealth generated by the Wealden iron industry. The building that houses the pub, restaurant and hotel is Grade I listed and was built as a private home for Sir Thomas Gresham keeper of the privy purse to Queen Elizabeth I. Parts of it date back to 1575, and there is a fireplace in the lounge carved by the famous craftsman Grinling Gibbons.
The food here is so good that the inn has been able to launch the Middle House deli on the opposite side of the road where you can buy frozen meals from the pub’s kitchens, a range of locally made hand-pies and Scotch eggs and my favourite local cheese, which is actually called Mayfield and is produced by Alsop and Walker at Five Ash just down the road. It’s a creamy and sweet cheese and you should buy more of it than you think you will eat because it disappears pretty quickly.
Ingredients for the restaurant and bar at the Middle House are locally sourced: meat comes from Leppards Family Butchers on the other side of the High Street, fruit and veg are bought from Fresh Direct, also in Mayfield, free range eggs are from Badgers Mead Farm outside the village … and so on. Such is the pride in the locally sourced food that further details of where Leppards and Fresh Direct get their produce from are pinned up alongside the bar.
There are separate menus for the bar and restaurant (as well as an innovative - if politically incorrect - ladies’ light lunch menu). The restaurant menu on the website looks great – it includes pot roast Mayfield pheasant with root vegetables and chestnuts at a reasonable £15.50. But the truth is that I’ve never eaten in the restaurant. Not since I discovered The Pie.
The Pie – a home-made chicken and leek shortcrust pastry pie – is served in the bar with market vegetables, potatoes and a rich gravy at a modest £10.95, and a very clever thing it is too.
About the size of a small mug, and precisely the same shape, the pie sits like a mediaeval tower in a moat of brown gravy. The vegetables – including heavenly Dauphinoise potatoes and cumin scented rosti – are served separately.
This allows for the maximum variety in the assembling of the meal and the dismantling of the tower. My preference is to keep the vegetables separate, take the thin lid off the top of the pie and eat the chicken and leek filling with the spoon used to serve the vegetables. That way, the light coloured creamy liquid inside is prevented from mingling with the dark brown gravy (which would be a visual disaster) and the thin biscuity crust can be eaten like … well, biscuits and gravy.
The Middle House has a vast menu as well as daily specials chalked up on a board. The fish menu is tremendous. Sample menus are on their website, including a pan-fried Boars Head Farm fillet steak Rossini en croute with chicken liver pate and rich red wine and mushroom sauce at £22.95 – another kind of pie – which is kind of tempting. But like the tower in Stephen King’s novels of the same name, The Pie holds a powerful grip over me, and is less than half the price.
I can’t sing the praises of the Middle House highly enough. The staff are invariably pleasant even when the bar is overflowing, which it often is, and the food is always good.
I wouldn’t normally have opted for dessert after The Pie, but – purely in the course of duty you understand – I tried a Sweet William pear and star anise tarte tatin with a cinammon ice cream that was just wonderful. Pear and star anise, who would have thought? It was so wonderful, in fact, that I forgot to make a note of the price – although most desserts hang around the £5.95 mark.
I could go on about the hand-pie – usually, but not always, pork – being the ultimate hiker’s grub. Or about the superiority of a Cornish pasty over a kebab after a beery night out with the boys. Or launch into the steamy debate about short versus puff pastry, or the even steamier one over whether a pie with only a top crust counts as a pie at all.
But for now I’ll settle for giving you the answer to that imponderable question often asked at football matches: who ate all of the pies?
That’ll have been me.