-The Cooking Colonel of Madras by David Smith

old English >

meat pies & puddings

steak and kidney pudding

steak & kidney pudding - picture courtesy of
© The Real Pie Company

         The English have been enjoying their pies for centuries but, interestingly, the pastry was not always made to be eaten. In Tudor times pies were essential travellers' food and the pastry was just a protective vessel for the meat within. In his book British Food food historian Colin Spencer tells us that the pies were large and made to keep for up to three months. Once the pie was cooked and while it was still hot a hole was made in the pastry lid and clarified butter poured in to exclude any air and preserve the meat. Other smaller pies with edible pastry were made to be eaten at home but they were often used as store cupboard items and were also topped with clarified butter to allow them to keep. The pie could contain almost anything. Some fillings like chicken, rabbit or ham sound familiar although fillings like porpoise or swan seem unbelievably exotic for modern tastes.

In the Victorian era pies were common street food. Colin Spencer relates how piemen would hawk their wares around the pubs of London shouting " 'Ere's all 'ot, toss or buy!". The pieman would then toss a coin and, if he lost, would give the pie away. If the pieman won the toss he would sell the pie for a penny. Pie shops were hugely popular and were the fast food outlets of their time. Londoners would buy pies to eat there and then or to take home and eat later. The pies could be filled with such things as beef, mutton, kidneys or eels. Eels from the River Thames were a big favourite of Victorian Londoners and Eel Pie Island near Twickenham, where bands like the Rolling Stones and The Who would play some 100 years later, was famous in its day for its food rather than its music.

Meat puddings too were popular in Victorian England. Puddings are boiled in water rather than baked in the oven and are made with suet crust pastry. Early Victorian sources mention steak puddings and kidney puddings but not what became the classic English combination of steak and kidney. In Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery of 1845 there are recipes for beef steak pudding and beef steak pie and the recipe includes oysters as an optional ingredient but not kidneys. She gives her beef-steak pudding the alternative name of "John Bull's Pudding". John Bull is the personification of the English character so the name alone tells you how much the English liked their steak puddings. In Mrs Beeton's famous Book of Household Management of 1861 there is indeed a recipe for Beef-Steak and Kidney Pudding which is credited to "a Sussex lady, in which county the inhabitants are noted for their savoury puddings". So it's possible that a regional speciality became John Bull's favourite on account of its inclusion in Mrs Beeton's hugely successful book.

Meat puddings are nowhere near as popular in modern day England as they were for the Victorians. Most supermarkets still sell steak and kidney puddings but these "babies' heads", as they are known in the catering trade, are nowhere near as popular as pies. Making puddings at home is nowhere near as common as it was 50 years ago. The beef suet in the pastry has fallen foul of our desire for healthy eating and the "time poor" nature of modern life seems incompatible with steaming a pudding for 3 hours (despite the fact that the pudding merrily cooks away all on its own while you do whatever it is that has to be done). Offal too has gone out of fashion and the taste and texture of things like kidneys seem alien to generations brought up in the relative affluence of late 20th century England where prime cuts of meat became the norm. But that may be changing. Sainsbury's, one of Britain's largest supermarket chains, announced in March 2009 that it's liver and kidney sales had doubled during the credit crunch as customers sought out cheap and nutritious alternatives. And it's not just in the budget end that's seen a revival of offal. Upmarket restaurants like Fergus Henderson's St John in London, where he offers "nose to tail eating", have become increasingly popular in recent years as discerning customers seek out honest English food.

Pies, on the other hand, are as popular as ever. Cheap basic pies, high end designer pies, you name it the English will eat it. On a typical supermarket shelf you will find pies filled with minced beef and onion, chicken and mushroom, steak and ale and scores of other combinations. Over half of the 'British meals' section of most supermarkets will be devoted to pies. But, for real quality, you can't beat home made pies. OK, so the busy cook may buy the pastry ready made from the supermarket but you can choose for yourself what goes in (or is left out of) your pie. My own favourite is steak and kidney pie made with my wife's home-made pastry surrounding my filling of beef steak and ox kidney in a thick gravy flavoured with Worcester sauce, thyme and black pepper. Perfect English food.