I went to London in search of savory pies. Relieved to say I was not disappointed.
I took a quick long weekend to London recently. After making the purchase, I was a little nervous about my impulse buy—would a trip to London in early February would be enjoyable? Would the weather cooperate? Good plan or not, the tickets were booked to the trip was happening.
If you’re reading this from a warm climate, I probably wouldn’t recommend London to you as a vacation destination in early February. But as a traveler from Boston, the milder English winter weather felt like a relief from the drudgery than can be winter in New England. Some might even call the weather I experienced “balmy” (though I’m not sure I’d go that far). I needed a hat and glove most days, but I didn’t have to go all the way to maximum bundle. What’s more, it was comfortable to wander outside for hours at a time as long as you kept moving.
A Long-awaited Return
Going to London was a bit surreal for me. I hadn’t really considered it before landing, but I had not been to London outside of an airport since I was a college junior studying abroad in Aberdeen, Scotland (also known as the “Granite City”).
My last memories of London include crying in an internet café after a clerical error erroneously made me think I had failed my only English class that semester (I didn’t) and refusing to go into St. Paul’s Cathedral because I was so over churches after playing tourist for five months (I did go in this time—it’s spectacular).
Needless to say, it was time for another trip. I didn’t have any particularly strong feelings about London after so many years. I remember liking it, and I had plenty of crazy stories from an epic hostel stay, but beyond a vaguely positive feeling, I didn’t have much to go on.
Love at First Sight
I loved London. I. LOVED. It. Which I guess should not be surprising, considering how much I love New York City. London feels like the cooler, better-travelled older cousin of New York, and I am absolutely here for it. I spent my five days there mostly traversing the city on foot and reacquainting myself with its sights, sounds and tastes (and trying to avoid getting run over by the cars on the “wrong” side of the road). In five days, I tallied nearly 120,000 steps. Not too shabby, right?
Back to the Pies
When I was an exchange student studying at the University of Aberdeen, I discovered the joy that is tiny savory pies. I always loved chicken pot pie as a kid, but preparing it requires a lot of time and effort. The thought that you can walk into a shop and choose from a myriad of perfectly prepared mini-pies, each with its own interesting filling was a source of great excitement. Also, savory pie might be the best hangover food of all time—carby, fatty, and full of protein.
Lucky for me, there was a pie shop located (at least in my memory) right in the middle of campus. I often treated myself to a hearty chicken pie or a novel macaroni pie between classes. And thus my love with savory pies was cemented.
A Brief History of the Humble Pie
- Fruit pies originated in the late 16th century. The 1st was a cherry pie served to Queen Elizabeth I.
- Mince pies were banned in England during Oliver Cromwell’s rule. Mince pies were strongly associated with Christmas, and Cromwell, a staunch puritan, had no tolerance for frivolities like Christmas.
- The oldest pie recipe on record (from the 2nd century B.C.) calls for a filling of goat cheese and honey.
- In 12th-century England, it was common for poultry pies to be prepared with legs hanging out to be used as handles.
Pie has been around for a long time—the ancient Egyptians even had a pie like dish. However, the modern pie with savory filling enclosed in a pastry dough originated in ancient Rome. The Romans made a dough from oil and flour that basically functioned like a pastry Tupperware—it was common to take the top off the pie, discard it and just eat the filling. The modern pie as we know it originated in northern Europe. There butter and lard were the fats of choice, rather than oil, making it possible to create a more pliable dough. Jamie Oliver’s website contains a great history of British pie if you want to learn more.
The first evidence of pies in Britain appears in 15th century. As pies spread thoughout England, each region began to produce its own typical variety, based on the ingredients that were most readily available. You can read more about these regional variations in “The Best of British Pies” in the British magazine Country Life.
Today these savories pies are quintiscentially British. In musing on the British taste for pie, Rupert Croft-Cooke wrote in English Cooking, “We have, throughout our history as a nation had a weakness for meat in pastry which, while it is not unique, is a sort of hallmark of our taste.”
I was more than happy to partake of that hallmark during my trip.
I was visiting friends in London, and they were eager to introduce me to their favorite local pies. We went to the Borough Market at the foot of London Bridge. This market has been in place since at least the late 13th century, and may have been in place as early as 1014. Today it is a lively marketing bursting with vendors hawking everything from local cheeses and fresh produce to exotic spices and the requisite British tea.
The Borough Market is also home to the Pieminister, a quirky, award-winning pie company based out of an old printworks on Bristol’s Stokes Croft. All the pies are still baked in Bristol and sent all over Britain. They offer a wide variety of pies, ranging from the traditional (Moo or Kate and Sydney) to the more creative variations (Saag Pie-neer or Matador).
I opted for a Saag Pie-neer and a Free Ranger (a chicken, leek and cheese-filled pie). Neither pie disappointed, inside or out. Paul Hollywood would have been pleased with their sturdy, golden crusts and I was more than pleased with their savory insides.
Like New York, I’m itching to get back to London for more culinary adventures. Pretty sure there will be more visits to Pieminister and the Borough Market in my future.