Category: Pie Fidelity

| Books, Pie Fidelity, Pies

Where were you while we were getting pie?

In case you hadn’t noticed, this week is British Pie Week. It’s also just four weeks until my next book, Pie Fidelity, is published. Pie Fidelity is about a lot more than just pies: it’s a celebration of all that’s great about traditional British food. But to celebrate British Pie Week, here’s another off-cut from the main book that tells the story of when I witnessed the closing together of two great Yorkshire legends: Tetley Dave, and Percy Turner’s pork pies.

Pic: wikipedia commons

I’m back in Barnsley, to help celebrate the fifth birthday of Acorn Brewery, which has resurrected the legendary Barnsley Bitter decades after the brewery that created it has been closed down. A few friends, customers and media folk have been invited to the brewery to sample the beers and have a chat. As a beer writer who grew up in Barnsley, I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter of Acorn since I first met founder Dave Hughes a few years previously, and he’s asked me up here to do a talk to the throng. 

One of the customers is publican and local legend ‘Tetley’ Dave Parker. Tetley Dave runs the Shoulder of Mutton in Castleford and is what’s known in the trade as a ‘character’. He reminds me of the late Jim Bowen, presenters of Bullseye, only Dave is funnier and more confident. As soon as he enters the room, he seems to be in the middle of every single one of the various conversations going on around it. He has a quip or gag to answer every point anyone makes. He’s in the audience today, in the middle of the third row of chairs, and yet somehow he’s centre-stage throughout the entire thing. He’s not scheduled to give a speech, but Tetley Dave doesn’t do schedules.

When I take the stage to share some thoughts about cask ale and tradition and Barnsley’s place within it, it quickly becomes clear that this is going to be a dialogue rather than a speech. Tetley Dave sits with his arms folded, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, sometimes with nothing much to add, but he adds it anyway. I’ve dealt with hecklers before, and I’ve dealt with aggressive people who want to interrupt and take control. This is different. Tetley Dave is not being difficult; he’s just being Tetley Dave. He simply doesn’t recognise the conventions of public speaking, the implied contract between speaker and audience. There’s no such covenant when he’s behind the bar in the Shoulder of Mutton, when everyone just piles in and the sharpest tongue wins. I think he genuinely doesn’t realise that there are situations that behave differently from the pub. Why should they?  

After the formalities, the brewery unveils lunch, the kind of beige buffet the beer world seems to subsist on, and is at least as much to blame for my middle-aged weight gain as the beer itself. There are plates full of small pork pies, two or three bites worth, still warm from being freshly baked this morning, the jelly still just about liquid, the meat around body temperature, slightly gamey, pink and glistening rather than the dead grey of the cellophane-wrapped supermarket pie. They’re insanely good. I ask Dave Hughes where they’re from.

“Percy Turner’s in Jump,” he says. ‘Had to queue for ‘em for half an hour this morning.”

It turns out that Dave Hughes’s experience is not uncommon. There are queues outside Percy Turner’s shop in the village of Jump, just outside Barnsley, most mornings. The queues of several hundred people on Christmas Eve have become a bit of a celebrated meme on the unofficial Percy Turner’s Pork Pie Appreciation page on Facebook, unaffiliated with the butcher’s itself, with over 4,000 likes. Other shops in town have A-boards outside giving an estimated time when their consignment of Turner’s pies will arrive. There’s a spoof M&S ad one admiring fan made for YouTube, but I’ve failed to find any official recognition for the best pork pies in the world. Percy Turner is too busy making pies to bother with a website, entering competitions, or indulging in any kind of promotional activity. But then, he hardly needs to.

Something’s not quite right in the room. The atmosphere is oddly muted. The silence extends from seconds into minutes. And then I realise: Tetley Dave has stopped talking. 

I go back to the buffet for a second pork pie, and am alarmed to see that despite a ratio of pies to people that was at least 4:1 ten minutes ago, they’ve almost disappeared, so I nab a third. Still the room is quiet. No one speaks at all. After ten minutes of this bustling brewery doing as pretty good impression of a Trappist monastery, the final evidence of Percy Turner’s pork pies ever having been here is been eradicated from the room.

Ten seconds later, Tetley Dave’s voice rises from the centre of the throng: “Nice bit o’ growler is that.”

Pie Fidelity is published on 4th April by Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

| Bacon, Books, Food, Pie Fidelity

Book out-take: what bacon rolls tell us about the decline of civilization

It’s seven weeks until the launch of my new book. Pie Fidelity sees me branching out from beer and cider writing into food and drink more broadly, so I’ll be blogging more about food as I promote the book, and probably after that too. Here are 1500 words that got cut from my chapter on breakfast, not because they were no good, but because I had way too many breakfasts in the book and my primary readers were starting to feel stuffed and greasy just reading it.

I don’t think it’s too hysterical an observation to make that civilisation has peaked, and has now entered a sustained period of decline. I don’t base this on the blanket coverage of war, famine, refugees and insane megalomaniacs in positions of power – these have always been with us. I’m talking about peaks of civilisation and progress that we have attained in the past, and now no longer have. We used to have regular manned flights to the moon and ambitions of going further beyond into space. We used to have supersonic passenger aircraft. We no longer do. To this list, I’m preparing to add the mighty bacon sandwich. 

Time pressures and health concerns mean that, for most of us, the full English breakfast or its equivalent is no more than a weekend treat. But it sends forth its ambassador, the bacon buttie, to do battle in the week, a signifier, a reminder, of what breakfast is really all about. In many of the surveys I’ve seen, the bacon buttie rivals the full breakfast itself as an icon of British life. Like fish and chips, curry or the question “fancy a pint?” It’s impossible to hear the suggestion of it without it raising a smile. But for no good reason, we seem to be in reverse gear on our journey to bacon nirvana.

You can spot civilisation’s decline in public buildings too. The Victorian train station, for example, was a grand edifice that inspired you with the possibilities of travel and made you feel as though you were embarking on a great and noble adventure, even if you were only going to Swindon to see your aunt. These and other municipal buildings erected around the same time were nicer than they had to be. They were designed to prompt an emotional response, to have aesthetic value rather than being strictly utilitarian.

New or rebuilt railway stations could not be more different. Their functionality is brutal to the point of outright hostility. The ‘seats’ on the platforms of stations such as Derby could only have been designed by someone with a pathological hatred of other people: shiny, slippery benches four inches deep, sloping forward at a 45-degree angle, mocking you for even daring to think they could offer any kind of comfort. It’s more restful to stand.

This contrast is echoed by the refreshments offered in each kind of station. Until recently, inside old Victorian stations such as London’s King’s Cross, homely little cafés would lurk. These independent businesses were run by shiny-faced men and women in their fifties, blasting steaming tea from huge urns into chunky white mugs. This tea was tannic and dark, as a friend of mine once remarked, ‘the colour of He-Man’s skin’. They served bacon rolls made with thick juicy rashers. And a roll and a cup of tea would cost £2.50. 

In all but a handful of British train stations, these cafés have been replaced by the same chains you find in the new stations. These franchises, with names like Pumpkin and Lemon Tree, come across as low-rent versions of Costa and Starbuck’s. Along with Upper Crust, Caffè Ritazza and every other stand on a typical British train station concourse, are all owned or operated by one company, SSP. Whichever franchise they’re working in, the staff are trained to ‘upsell’ you, and seemingly trained to do little else. The bacon is always overdone and the bread is the wrong kind – baguette, ciabatta and focaccia have their time and place, but by the gods it’s not here, not now. The staff often seem confused when you ask them to heat the roll or baguette, despite the fact that the little card on the stand says ‘served hot!’ If they deign to ask you if you want sauce, you’re lucky if they remember which one – often they give you tomato and brown because that’s easier than trying to remember the answer to a question they asked you ten seconds ago. And instead of costing £2.50, like the bacon roll and cuppa in the café that stood here before the station’s last refurbishment, your baguette and flimsy cardboard cup of wan tea costs at least double that. 

The first time I was presented with this perplexing excuse for a bacon roll and a cup to tea, I simply couldn’t understand how any big corporation could get something so simple so colossally wrong. And then I realised that part of the problem is that in every chain like this, everything is prepared off-site, packaged in cellophane and delivered to each branded outlet, foolproof and ready to eat or microwave. Head office has decided the branch staff can’t be trusted with the simple act of cooking, that they’re incapable of performing tasks at work that they, you and I carry out perfectly well in our leisure time. This is what now passes for ‘progress’, as our civilisation starts to pick up speed on its downward curve.

In any of these franchises, or on the trains themselves, or even in the supposedly more upmarket coffee shop chains these places emulate, a closer inspection of the contents of whatever they pass off as a bacon sandwich provides further confirmation of the inevitable demise of our way of life. I can’t have my bacon sandwich, baguette, ciabatta or whatever-else-they’ve-decided-to-serve-it-on-except-a-simple-fucking-roll without sauce, so this means I have no choice but to open the thing. This is not to be recommended. Inside, you find a few gossamer-thin strips of streaky bacon the colour of old blood, covering a quarter to a third of the surface area of the bread. In my time, I’ve bought some pretty cheap and nasty bacon from some fairly down-at-heel supermarkets, and it’s never been as nasty as this stuff, so I’ve no idea where they get it from.

State of this.

Even in the rare chains where it’s better quality than the scrapings from the abattoir floor, it’s still streaky. There’s a great deal I admire about American culture and cuisine, but bacon seems to be some kind of national blind spot. They seem unaware that back bacon exists, because if they did know about it they wouldn’t insist on serving streaky bacon on their breakfasts and burgers. And as the popularity of American cuisine surges in the UK, chains are replacing back bacon with streaky, to be more like the Americans, even though they know it’s not as good.

We’re going backwards.

This is just one example of Britain’s food identity crisis, the sense that anything British must somehow be inferior to something foreign, even when this is evidently not true. At the time of writing, Pret à Manger’s ‘bacon roll’ is in fact a ‘bacon brioche’, served ‘with a dab of unmistakably French butter’. The French don’t do bacon rolls. The English do. So why would anyone think a French-style bacon roll would be an improvement on the English original?

As well as offering a warped version of the bacon sandwich or roll, these chains also offer something they usually call an ‘all-day breakfast’ roll, sandwich, bloomer or even wrap. These generally contain streaky bacon, a sausage sliced into tiny wafers, some kind of omelette and a ‘tomato relish’ because you could use ketchup or brown sauce like a normal person but where would the fun be in that? These products are a plangent reminder that the modern ‘on the go’ lifestyle – a phrase beloved of food marketers but no one else – means we don’t have time for a real breakfast any more. The whole concept depresses me so much I’ve never been able to bring myself to try one.

Until I went to Belfast. 

St George’s Market is a beautiful Victorian indoor market that has won many awards. While it’s unashamedly foodie, it celebrates the traditional and affordable as well as the more exclusively gastronomic. I’m advised to get there early to try the Belfast Bap.

The saying around here is that the word ‘bap’ is an acronym for ‘bread at affordable prices’. This isn’t true in terms of etymology, but it is true in Belfast: the Belfast bap was created by an Armagh baker called Barney Hughes to help feed Belfast’s poor in the 1845-49 famine, and stuck around as a favourite food for the workers in the docks nearby. 

Appropriately, given the history of shipbuilding in those docks, the roll itself is of titanic proportions. It’s roughly the size and shape of the millennium dome, deep brown, almost burnt on top. Served as a breakfast bap, it comfortably accommodates two thick rashers of back bacon, two sausages sliced once lengthways, and a fried egg, all sitting on a thick stratum of mushrooms and fried onions. I order it with a cup of tea, and haul my breakfast to a small table in front of the baked goods stall that assembled it. The roll is the same height as the top of the Styrofoam cup. 

The first word that strikes me as I tuck in is ‘comforting’. Everything is well done without quite being burnt. There’s caramelisation and depth, richness, and an instinctive threat of danger. Rolls like this give the cooked breakfast its cancerous reputation: it has nothing to do with the scare stories stoked by the Daily Mail: you look at this, and taste it, and your gut says, ‘Oh wow, this obviously carcinogenic. How could it not be?’

Cup of tea included for scale.

The roll is so big it probably inspired the building of the Titanic in the first place. And like the ship, it sinks. It takes time to work through this thing, and after the first ten minutes, while the dome that forms the top half remains unbowed, the base just can’t cope and simply dissolves in the watery grease that’s now pooling on my paper plate. It’s now no longer possible to gnaw away at this edifice unassisted. 

On the counter, there’s a cup full of disposable knives and forks. 

I have a word with myself. The dissolving base is a failsafe mechanism. You could quite reasonably walk away at this point. No one would blame you. You’ve done as much here as any reasonable person could. Whereas if you pick up a knife and fork and carry on, you’re making a statement, a declaration of reckless bravado.

OK, just another couple of bites…

Twenty minutes after I bought it, stuffed after eating about two-thirds of the thing, I finally admit defeat. The mess that’s left on my plate is so substantial it could easily be used to make a new all-day breakfast muffin or wrap of the same size and consistency as those found in high street coffee shop chains. As far as I know, this could be how those chains do source their produce. It doesn’t matter to me: I never need eat breakfast again.

Pie Fidelity is published by Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, on 4th April 2019, and is available for pre-order. Disclosure: my trip to Belfast was partially funded and made possible by Tourism NI. Thanks to the wonderful Claire Keenan for introducing me to the amazing worth of Northern Ireland’s food and drink.

| Books, Food, Pie Fidelity

PIE FIDELITY: In Defence of British Food

“We’d like you to do another book,” they said,

“We just don’t want it to be about beer or cider,” they said.

“What else ya got?”

“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.” 

Anthony Bourdain (1956 – 2018)

I was devastated when Bourdain died.

He caught a lot of flak from beer geeks for criticising craft beer, but when he spoke about lots of people earnestly sipping tiny samples of their “Mumford & Sons IPAs”, I had to hold my hands up in surrender. Even when he was being unreasonable, he was usually right. His writing style was, along with George Orwell and Stephen King, a significant influence on the development of my own.

I was just starting the second draft of this book when news of Bourdain’s passing broke. I hadn’t been thinking about him as a direct influence while I was writing the first draft – which is weird given that this will be my first book overtly about food. But then, after his death, I was reading lots of stuff about him, and lots of his best lines, and I found the quote above and realised he’d perfectly described the book I’d just finished, even though he will never know about it.

I’m using this quote in the front of the book because it’s pretty much an introduction to the entire idea in three punchy, beautifully syncopated, passionate, enlivening, third-eye-opening sentences. I can only hope there are three sentences in the book that read as well – otherwise, it’s all downhill once we get into the text proper.

I always wanted to write more broadly than beer. Not because beer is limiting – it’s not, in terms, of what you can write about, even if it is in terms of the breadth of people you can reach – but it’s not the only subject in the world that I’m interested in exploring via the process by which I write books.

Most people I know who are passionate about beer – or cider- are also passionate about food. The best ones, the ones whose opinions I respect the most about what they drink, are also experts on what’s good to eat – not just what it tastes like and how we might get our hands on the best, but also how food fits in with everything else. 

After The Apple Orchard proved to be pleasantly successful, Penguin, who published that book, asked me what else I might want to write about. (There was a glut of beer books at the time.) I realised that when I’m not thinking about beer or cider, for a good chunk of the time I’m thinking about food – not just eating it (though a lot of it is that, as my physique suggests) – but also about how to cook it, the act of sharing it, what it means, how it impacts us and defines us. Yes I’m post-rationalising here, but what I mean is, I realised that in the same way it had long puzzled me that British beer drinkers tend to be dismissive of cask ale even as craft beer drinkers around the rest of the world revere it at least as much as any other beer style, we also tend to be down on our food in a similar way.

Except that if you actually engage us in talking about food, we’re not: fish and chips, Sunday roasts and bacon sandwiches are three of the most dominant icons that define Britain. Our food and drink is indelibly linked with how others see us, and our own sense of who we are.

And people love talking about them: their memories of both the best and the worst, the comfort they bring, the way they brought families and friends together when we were much younger. More recently, we’ve made other dishes such as curry and spag Bol as British as the rest – but go back far enough, and all our favourite meals have multicultural origins. 

So this is a book about nine meals that define us. It’s about appreciating these meals in their perfect context and situation, about the typical example rather than the best, about how they are important to us, and what it means that they are.

This is also my most personal book to date: I had no idea when I started writing, but if you want to explore the meaning of food, you can’t do so honestly without delving in to what food means in your own life. About a quarter of the word count in this book turned out to be memoir. If you’re looking for dispassionate food history, stop reading now. If you’re honest with yourself, your relationship with food is a gateway to your own memories and emotions too, whether they are happy or sad. (Mine tend to be snatched moments of joy in a relatively unhappy childhood.)

It’s all in there. Its all done. It’s now available for pre-order on Amazon, and having finished it I’m going on holiday to Spain at the end of the week. 

If you’re looking for something patriotic, something that can make you proud to be British in these uncertain times, this is the book for you. If you’re expecting that to come with some kind of “And the thing is, because we’re good at something, that means every other nation on earth is shit compared to us, let’s kick all the fuckers out” then I’m sorry. but maybe it’s not for you. #notsorry. 

From the blurb:

Yes, it’s good. It’s great.

But we’re British, and we don’t have to bang on about it all the time.

In Britain, we have always had an awkward relationship with food. We’ve been told for so long that we are terrible cooks and yet according to a 2012 YouGov survey, our traditional food and drink are more important than the monarchy and at least as significant as our landscape and national monuments in defining a collective notion of who we are. Taking nine archetypically British dishes – Pie and Peas, A Cheese Sandwich, Fish and Chips, Spag Bol, Devonshire Cream Tea, Curry, The Full English, The Sunday Roast and a Crumble with Custard – and examining them in their perfect context, Pete Brown reveals just how fundamental food is to our sense of identity, perhaps even our sense of pride, and the ways in which we understand our place in the world.