According to Wikipedia, pies go as far back as Ancient times, which means we have been enjoying pies almost as long as we've been on this planet.
And for good reason. Pies are amazing. They can be salty, they can be sweet, they are always filling and they are more comforting than a hug from your mother. I don’t know about you, but I really do not know what we as a nation or a planet would be without the humble pie.
It doesn’t matter what corner of the globe you go to, there is always some kind of pie. Whether it is the South American Empanada, Quiche from France, gnarly Stargazey Pie from Cornwall or Cherry Pie straight out of Twin Peaks – pies are everywhere and I am 100% OK with that.
But with that being said, I think British pies, and more specifically, Northern pies, are some of the best in the world. Of course, I am a little biased, but it is here we will begin…
If you are from the North of England, the love for pies should be in your blood. Pies mean something quite specific up here, and a ‘Proper’ pie should be made with shortcrust or hot water pastry which is a little on the dense side rather than crumbly. The pastry has to be this way to have the strength to hold the boiling-hot filling inside.
Speaking of the filling, there are some classics we can look to and they are slow-cooked stews with a little snifter of booze in them (in true British style).
Steak and Ale (or equally Steak and Kidney) is about as traditional as putting the kettle on in a time of crisis and I think you will find it a favourite among most Northerners. If you want the full experience of this pie, I suggest you head to Lord of the Pies in Stockport – their steak and ale pie is the stuff of legend and their other fillings are pretty good too.
Chicken Pies are also pretty popular in this part of the world and have been even before they were made famous in Chicken Run in the year 2000. Some people might tell you that chicken, ham and leek is as good as it gets and for others it will be chicken and mushroom.
Whatever your flavour preferences – if it is chicken you want, it is chicken you will get at Pieminister in the NQ. They have four chicken pies on their menus such as Chicken of Aragon (with dry-cured bacon and tarragon), Fungi Chicken (with Portabello and chestnut mushroom), the Free Ranger (with ham and leek for traditional vibes) and my personal favourite, Chooks Away (with celeriac, smoked garlic and sherry).
Do bear in mind that Pieminister is a millennial re-vamp of your traditional pie experience, but it is still pretty damn good and a great place for lunch if you are ever in the NQ. Make sure you go for the full experience with ‘The Mothership’ by adding creamy mash, gravy, peas, cheddar and crispy shallots.
Another pie that is almost as old as time is the Cheese and Onion Pie. Up here in Manchester, it would be sacrilege not to use a delicious Lancashire cheese like Mrs Kirkham’s which is ideally paired with some soft butter-stewed onions, pepper and perhaps a teaspoon of mustard for good measure.
A great Cheese & Onion pie transcends between vegetarians and avid meat eaters and there is nothing quite like a good one. The Great North Pie Co. is a well-loved favourite and has a little extra finesse added to it which I am a big fan of. This pie takes the traditional shortcrust pastry and fills it with Dewlay’s tasty Lancashire cheese, caramelised white onion, white pepper, nutmeg & Japanese Panko breadcrumbs for texture and it is quite simply delicious.
Although that old-timer down at the pub might tell you that traditional pies are the only pies as far as he is concerned, things do not stop with shortcrust pastry. I think it is a well-known fact that Puff Pastry is the superior pastry down to its layers of buttery goodness, and so the Holy Grail (for me anyway) is a pie made (or topped) with this.
The Bay Horse Tavern comes in with a bit of a mediator between the traditional and the modern as it uses puff pastry to contain traditional fillings like steak & ale, cheese & onion, chicken & bacon and mushroom & leek which are always a winner. Paired with a side of their thrice-cooked chips and the delicious gravy – the Bay Horse pies are sure to knock your socks off.
And it doesn’t just stop at the puff pastry department. In many parts of the world, Filo Pastry is the weapon of choice and adored by all.
Filo is thin, crispy and made by being painstakingly rolled out until is it translucent, and layered on top of itself. It is sometimes used as a healthy alternative to puff pastry (as it is low on the butter), but if you are anything like the cooks from the Mediterranean or the Middle East, you could make up for it by filling it with cheese, oil or sugar syrup.
Take the Greeks, for example, whose answer to pies is Spanakopita – a delicacy which takes layers of filo and fills it with feta cheese, olive oil and spinach (and sometimes pine nuts) and rolls it up into a spiral. It is crispy, salty and juicy and so it is not hard to imagine why the Greek’s have made it one of their national dishes. Find it on the evening menu at Bouzouki By Night on Princess Street.
The Turks, on the other hand, like to fill their filo pies with nuts and feed it with sugar syrup. I am, of course, talking about Baklava, which is a dessert widely eaten throughout the Middle East. It is sweet and incredibly bad for you, so I only advise a little bit to avoid instant development of diabetes. Try it (with a blob of ice cream just for the hell of it) at KAI, the newest Turkish restaurant on Deansgate.
In the UK, we use the term ‘pie’ quite liberally, and it doesn’t always refer to something encased in pastry. Mash will suffice as a lid and some of our nations most treasured dishes are pies of this form.
I didn’t know the difference between Cottage and Shepherd’s Pies when I was a child, but I can now tell you with confidence that, although suspiciously similar, the former is made with beef and the latter with lamb. These dishes are minced meat cooked into a gravy with vegetables and topped with mashed potatoes and baked in the oven until crisp. How bloody bleak and British does that sound written down?
Cottage/Shepherd’s Pies are English comfort food at their very best, and I am not going to suggest anywhere here in Manchester because it isn’t going to taste better than the one your mum/uncle/ grandmother makes. What I am going to do, however, is point you in the direction of a few twists on the classic I have seen on Manchester’s menus.
Brasserie Abode is home to a cracking Puy Lentil Shepard’s Pie which is totally vegetarian. In this dish, the meat is replaced with tender puy lentils and cooked with red wine, shallots, beetroot carrots and herbs and topped off with some silky sweet potato mash. This pie is a healthy alternative to the usually stodgy and carb-heavy meat version.
On the flipside of that, is the Grand Pacific Asian Spiced Duck Cottage Pie which is certainly one for treat day. This dish is world-famous and I wouldn’t change a single thing about it. It takes juicy tender duck in a rich gravy and topped with mash and pork crackling with a little pot of homemade pickled onion on the side. Top marks.
Another mash-pie which is pretty popular and endlessly comforting is a Fish Pie. Usually eaten on Fridays in my house when I was a child, this pie is worth stinking out your kitchen for. A mix of seasonal fish (preferably from our shores) is used – typically haddock, salmon, or pollack with prawns, white sauce and a little cheese on top. I think this is one of those dishes best eaten at home or at a pub, but the Lowry Hotel’s Fish Pie is pretty righteous too.
We learnt in the previous section of this piece that the word ‘pie’ doesn’t always mean something with a pastry lid. Oh no. If you ask the Americans, ‘pie’ can mean literally anything. They even call pizzas ‘pies’ sometimes which I have now decided to find offensive.
Key Lime Pie isn’t really a pie either, but I just wish it wasn’t so delicious. It’s similar to cheesecake in texture and form, and set in a biscuit base and made using eggs, condensed milk and lime juice/zest for flavour. Normally it is finished with whipped cream and I like the one from Red’s True BBQ as it makes the perfect sweet finish to any barbeque-based meal.
Lemon Meringue Pies make a little more sense to me as they have some sort of lid. They are also really delicious too, which makes it rather difficult to say no. Typically, these are a lemon tart, made with citrus custard in a sweet-shortcrust base which is topped off with sweet meringue and fired in the oven.
What you are left with is a gooey-marshmallow top with a crisp outer layer and delicious custard beneath. If you fancy a slice of one of these, I would look no further than Idle Hands Coffee in the NQ. All their pies are stunning to tell you the truth, but the meringue ones are a real show stopper. Watch out for the Orange and Poppyseed Meringue Pie when you are next there – it’s orgasmic.
Just as an honourable mention, I wanted to talk about the Deep Fried Pies you can get at Eat New York – The Bagel Shop. Yeah, they are as good (and as calorific) as they sound, but they are damn good. Choose from apple, cherry and blueberry fillings and prepare to experience a taste-sensation like nothing you’ve ever had before. They are naughty, very naughty in fact, but sometimes you have to live dangerously.
Whatever your preference, when it comes to pies you will be spoilt for choice in Manchester, and they are just what you need to stay warm this winter.