Murray Chalmers celebrates National Pie Week in style by sampling a host of pies and recalling his own pie history, which has its roots in 1970s Dundee…
I’ve eaten seven pies over the course of two days and I’m starting to crave something that tastes and smells of nothing much – a pack of tofu, a slice of cucumber, the Scottish Tories’ manifesto or maybe just some hot air.
After my crust frenzy I need something inherently boring and bland, something that doesn’t send such strong pleasure signals to the brain that all you can do is be thankful that National Pie Week (March 1-7) happens just once a year. I was never addicted to drugs but nothing could beat the high you get after the first bite of a pie – you’d basically sell your granny for that high to continue.
Respite comes tomorrow, the last official day to celebrate the “baked dish of fruit, meat or vegetables, typically with a top and base of pastry”.
But, really, those 15 words can’t convey the thrill of scorching your lips with that first lunge into a blistering hot peh, a Scottish staple and so much part of Dundee life that we’ve claimed it as our own.
My own history with pies goes back to the 1970s. I suppose you tend to revert to a time when things seemed easy and happy and, for me, that means glam rock, a Chopper bike, platform shoes, Steve Ellis gang jumpers, underage drinking, Bowie feather cuts, punk and a pie on a Saturday.
Trivial things like industrial unrest, a tanked economy, blackouts, reading by candlelight, three-day weeks and the TV shutting down at 10.30pm have acquired a romance they certainly didn’t have at the time – but it also brought the downfall of the Tory government. Just as now, there is always hope!
Pies to me are the taste of Saturday afternoons, sitting waiting for mum to decide that they were searingly hot enough to be served, always with beans on the side. Our family had no aspirations and no ambition other than to survive – but we did have standards and beans on top were an affectation too far.
My dad had been a bakery salesman for much of his life, apart from when we lived in Dunkeld where he ran the ironmonger shop (still there on Atholl Street, virtually unchanged from when I remember it in 1964).
When my parents separated, my mum and I fled to Dundee and made a new life there, and eventually my dad followed. My sister was born and we got a bigger flat on Broughty Ferry Road, with an inside toilet but no bath or shower. To this day I remember bathing in a plastic bath dangerously close to the gas fire as my dad played My Way on the stereogram.
Land O’ Cakes
Dad had worked for various bakers but eventually got a job with Wallace Land O’ Cakes and thus I remember the childlike excitement of having endless free pies and rolls.
But our bounty wasn’t endless. One day my mum noticed that the flat was always unnaturally clean. It turned out my dad had been fired from his job, was too ashamed to tell us and thus would set off every day as if going to work, watch us all leave the flat and then return.
Like most people with a drink problem he had a secret life and suddenly everything fell apart, including the supply of pies.
It took a long time for us to get back into eating pies after dad finally left. But eventually the lure was too great and I remember Saturday afternoons with fondness, munching on pies and counting down the hours until mum went out and I could watch Marc Bolan on the Cilla Black show.
By now we had a new council house with a bath AND a shower, a front and back garden, and milk delivered in plastic sachets which would burst on our doorstep when they were chucked from the path.
So much was delivered then – milk, rolls, newspapers, lemonade, fish and of course ice-cream from the van.
Scotch/Dundee pies are such a revered thing, and quite rightly so. I’ve seen amazing chefs like Dundee-born Jeremy Lee (now at the beautiful Quo Vadis in London’s Soho) write so effusively about Dundee pies, as if they had protected status.
I know people who left Dundee and now beg friends to bring them a batch of “pehs” every time they visit – indeed my sister never returns to Hackney without a stash.
When I mentioned online that I was writing this column it got a huge response, with much debate about the validity of macaroni pies and almost incendiary debates about who makes the best pies.
Frosts in Montrose were mentioned by artist Stuart Buchanan, while events producer Ruthie Fisher was unequivocal in her allegiance to Goodfellow & Steven. My cousin Jacqueline remembers a stovie pie served in Dens Road Market which is an innovation needing a revival, while chef Lewis Donegan states that “Wallace’s pies are still undefeated. When I have achieved everything I want in my career I would like one day to open a pie shop and do it better than the famous Wallace’s”.
Pushing the pie crust further, my neighbour Dawn Toshney remembers a baker in Edinburgh making breakfast pies featuring a full Scottish breakfast encased in pastry. Kitschnbake’s Mary-Jane Duncan has served the same.
Alexis Petridis, the Guardian’s rock critic and Elton John’s biographer, remembers that the appeal of the pie isn’t just Scottish. “When Mrs Petridis’s grandad – a Wigan native – died, the funeral was catered by Pimlett’s pies. I kid you not, there was a massive pile of pies on one table (savoury) and a massive pile of pies on another table (sweet). That was it. No one other than me seemed to think this was in any way weird”.
The online debate turned up to gas mark six when the legendary Sam McKnight, hairstylist to everyone from Princess Diana to Kate Moss, entered into a spirited discussion with business manager Russell Brown about whether a stew with a pastry lid actually constitutes a pie.
So, finally, what are the best local pies of the many I tried?
My favourite large steak pie came from Balgove Larder in Fife. Over the years I’ve largely dismissed the generic butcher’s steak pie because they became so ubiquitous they seemed to merge into one. The meat would be dry, stringy and chewy, the pastry would become soggy and dense and the gravy thin and watery. Many reminded me of the elasticity of the description “home -made”.
Balgove’s pie was properly home-made and was perfect – the most wonderful, robustly-seasoned filling had been cooked overnight at a low temperature, which meant that the meat acquired a tenderness that was absolutely delicious. The puff pastry had flavour, was crisp and tasted fresh while the gravy was rich and unctuous, stridently seasoned and all the better for it.
The steak in Balgove’s pie is cut and trimmed on-site by their excellent butchers – their team is so revered that I and many others followed master butcher Dougie there from when he worked in my local butchers in Newport.
Balgove’s meat is taken from the forequarter of the animal – the parts that have to work the hardest and thus have the best flavour. The long, slow cooking makes it so deliciously tender.
This is meat from traditionally-bred livestock, animals which grow slowly and develop plenty of fat and marbling as they age. I think my 1lb pie (£8.25) was probably meant for four but I demolished half in one sitting and had the rest for lunch next day. Top stuff.
The award for best small pie was no contest. James Pirie of Newtyle won the world champions award for best Scotch pie in 2018 and again last year, and their traditional Scotch pie (£1.50) is a real bargain and delight – an excellent crust enclosing the most wonderful, peppery, aromatic filling, the meat non-greasy and gristle-free.
Pirie’s chicken and white pudding pie (£1.65) was also a thing of wonder, the filling spicy with peppercorns and the puff pastry melting in the mouth. The addition of white pudding was inspired. Other pies I tried (all £1.65) were delicious and included a steak pie rich with gravy and black pudding, and a cold pie featuring pork, blueberry and apple.
James Pirie is just fantastic – a traditional butcher which also innovates, making 40 different flavoured sausages, while their haggis recipe is 80 years old.
All the pies are made daily by hand and people have travelled from as far as California to buy them. A 76-year-old Glaswegian endured four bus changes from Glasgow just to get his pies. Pirie are true masters of their craft and have won a staggering 188 awards, including Scottish sausage champions three times and Scottish haggis champions. They are the Kings of Pies.
A reworked paean to the pie comes from Dundee’s brilliantly incendiary poet Mark Richardson:
Eh jist hud a peh, A pie?
Nah mate a peh, a peh fir meh tea
This peh wiz pure bylin
It wasnae good tae me
Eh but intae this curried delight
The following sight wasnae bonnie
It pure ruined meh night
The sass dribbled doon meh chin
Pure peeling aff the skin
Dribbling aff meh pus
Melting meh shin
Eh wiz screaming and bawling
But the sass kept on falling
Whut could eh dae
Tae stop this curried mauling
Eh flung me leg in the sink
Flinging oot the dishes
A clinkity clink
The pain was unbearable
Eh couldnae even hink
Eh turned oan the tap
Waiting fir the cauld relief
But like a total pap
Only added to meh grief
Oot came bylin watter
Jist adding to the slaughter
Eh fell doon greeting and screaming
Surely Eh’m dreaming
Eh stuck meh leg in the freezer
Then Eh’m oot cauld
Meh leg sizzling and steaming
n Balgove Larder, Strathtyrum Farm, St Andrews KY16 9SF – tel: 01334 898 145. balgove.com
James Pirie & Son, 39–43 Church St, Newtyle, PH12 8TZ – tel: 01828 650301. pirieandson.co.uk