Author: Bill Hendrie

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Friday, June 30th, 2006 at 2:24 pm
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The Big Dish for the Big Day

Bill Hendrie’s tried and tested favourite for New Year is his granny’s steak pie

Warm, reekin’, rich,” is how Robert Burns lovingly described the haggis and through his famous ode, turned it into what is generally accepted as Scotland’s national dish. Yet when my family gets together, as we’ll do for Ne’er Day lunch, I know we will not sit down to haggis.
Instead we will share the delights of a muckle, mouth watering steak pie, big enough for all of us with plenty left for second helpings. For while haggis is indeed always on the menu at Burns Suppers and is served specially when overseas guests come to dine, it is steak pie which is the big dish for big events, as far as my family is concerned.
Steak pie has always been synonomous with special occasions ever since my childhood years, when one was placed almost religiously on the table, when we went for Sunday high tea at my Granny’s home in Bo’ness. With its tasty chunks of tender beef in rich brown gravy, surrounded by crisp pastry baked to a perfect golden hue, the steak pie always seemed large enough to feed everybody round the table, no matter how many relations came to visit. Likewise, it was steak pie which was also always on the menu when family and friends came together for special events.
The reason steak pies came to occupy this special place in Scottish family life is that they were a tasty but affordable treat, large enough to share with the whole family, but, unlike sirloin and even more so, fillet steaks, never too expensive, even when five and six pound pies, too large for the oven of the kitchen range, had to be sent round to be cooked by Johnstons the local baker in North Street.
As far as my Granny was concerned, sending an oversized home made steak pie down the School Brae to the baker’s to be cooked in his big oven was always quite an acceptable practice, but buying a ready made pie from the butcher’s in South Street, was quite another matter. For, like most Scottish housewives of her generation, she looked ascance at these ‘bought pies’.
“You never know what’s in them,” she used to declare darkly, in those days long before trading standards officers ever came into existance.
Although at first sight steak pie may appear a simple dish to prepare, there were many different recipes, which were regularly swapped at meetings of the Eastern Star in the Masonic Temple, at Craigmailen Church Guild and the Blackness branch of the Women’s Rural Institute. In the end, Granny always concluded that her own recipe was the best, but there were many arguments, especially concerning the ideal ingredients.
A great deal of controversy centred round whether or not to add onion. Some cooks argued that it enhanced the flavour, while others felt it turned the contents into a glorified stew.
Equally controversial was the inclusion of kidney. As far as some cooks were concerned, a steak pie without diced kidney was as incomplete as haggis without chappit neeps and tatties. Others, however, were equally emphatic that kidney was simply a filler, used to produce a pie on the cheap. Even more questionable was the addition of sausages. This practice seems to have first come about when meat rationing during the Second World War made it difficult to get steak, but continued afterwards, because some families, especially those with children, liked the distinctive taste.
In the catering industry such cheap additions are known as extenders and, while sausages came to be added because of war time shortages in different parts of Scotland, other added ingredients have a longer and more respectable history. In country areas, freshly picked mushrooms were available free for the gathering in the surrounding woods and fields and were often added to bulk out the contents. It was on the shores of the Firth of Forth, however, that the most unusual extender was to be found. For this was the home of the famous Musselburgh Pie. Originally known as Eskmouth, Musselburgh was renamed because of the famed abundance of mussels at the mouth of the River Esk – still depicted on the town’s coat of arms. Far from being the luxury item which they are today, mussels then were so cheap and plentiful that between May and August (the months without an ‘R’ in their names, when they were safe to eat) local housewives used to wrap them in beaten strips of stewing steak and use them as an economical way to bulk out their pies.
Through this money saving trick, the women of the Forth fishing port discovered almost accidentally that the combination of beef and shellfish produced a truly tasty mouthful, long before the Americans ever thought of their now famed surf and turf, a combination of lobster and prime fillet steak.
Sometimes, to add a wee bit of variety, they used smoked mussels and then it was traditional to add a wrapping of smoked streaky bacon round both the steak and the shell fish.
Since Roman times, Musselburgh was also known for its abundant beds of oysters and these, too, were so freely available that they were sometimes scooped from their shells, split in two, wrapped in bacon like the mussels and added to the steak pies.
As well as arguments about what constitute the ideal ingredients, there have also always been disputes about what kind of pastry should be used. While water pastry has traditionally been used to give mutton pies a hard enough shell for them to be eaten in the hand, softer puff and short crust pastry have always been the choice for covering steak pies. Supporters of flaky puff pastry and the more gravy absorbant short crust pastry appear to be about equal!
The most important thing about the pastry, however, is not whether it is rough puff or smooth short crust, but that it should, of course, be baked with the steak and never cooked separately, or, even worse, micro waved and stuck on top as an afterthought.
No such mockery of a dish will await my family on Ne’er Day, because our family steak pie will be cooked faithfully according to Granny’s well tried and tested recipe. If you would like a real treat and care to share a slice with us, my cousin Jean Fettis, the present custodian of the precious recipe, provides the following details of how to prepare and bake it.

lngedients for the filling for a pie to serve six people;
one and a half pounds (675 g.) of diced stewing steak,
one medium sized chopped onion,
four ozs. (100 g.) of sliced mushrooms, one teaspoon of gravy powder,
one teaspoon of cornflour dissolved in water,
salt and pepper to season.
Ingredients for the rough puff pastry;
eight ozs. plain flour (200 g.),
two ozs. (50 g.) margarine,
two ozs. (50 g.) cooking lard, or equivalent
a pinch of salt
water to mix.
Method; brown the meat in a sauce pan. Add onion and mushrooms and salt and pepper. Cover with water and cook until meat is tender (approx. one and a half to two hours) Thicken with gravy powder and cornflour mixed with a little water and put into a pie dish to cook.
Make the pastry by rubbing the margarine and lard into the flour until it looks like fine breadcrumbs. Add enough water to bind together. Roll the pastry out a little larger than the size of the pie dish and cover the pie mixture with the pastry. Crimp the edges and make a small hole in the centre of the pastry, then bake in a hot oven at 180 degrees centigrade, gas mark 4, for 45 minutes.

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One Response to “The Big Dish for the Big Day”

  1. Toney Sorto Says:

    Thank you so much, I’ll have to subscribe your site and read the rest I think. The first date my wife and I had nearly 20 years ago now was a lovely seafood restaurant in Napoli, so I’ve been spending ages trying to find a decent grilled lobster recipe like we had that night – our anniversary is next month so I’m hoping to surprise her!

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