Award-winning blogger and Borough Market regular Ed Smith displays a talent for illustration as well as the written word, as he talks to stallholders about the tools of their trade. This month: the pastry blocker and presser
Romany Simon, Pieminister
About 20 years ago my little brother Tristan and my then boyfriend (now husband) Jon met through me and became really good friends. I think one of the things they bonded over was how they had been to Australia—separately—and had both been taken by how pies were actually quite cool down there, and young people ate them. In the UK, despite pies theoretically being quite a British thing, pies had a reputation for being a bit rubbish. A few years later, in 2003, they decided to do something together and acquired an old print works in Stokes Croft, Bristol. They turned it into a little pie kitchen and cafe. It must have hit a nerve, because the pies became really popular really quickly, and things just grew.
Tristan and Jon made a promise to each other and their customers that they would only use really good ingredients. That meant always using free range British chicken and pork (and beef and lamb, though they’re more typically pasture-fed in Britain anyway), while trying to support and champion local farmers and artisan producers of cheese and beer. Lots of people are doing that now, but back then it was quite unusual. Certainly, the idea of using free range meat in a pie filling was rare.
One of the things that we think make our pies popular is our pastry and the way it is shaped. After much trial and error, Jon and Tristan decided that the perfect pie had a shortcrust base and sides, and a flaky suet lid. The means the pie is robust and well structured, crumbling when you want it to and not becoming soggy, however wet the filling.
Traditional Victorian pie
We use only British flour and British butter for that shortcrust, and then a vegetarian suet for the lid. And the combination ensures that the pies can be served stand-alone, without a foil tin—this is how you’ll find them at Borough, though you can add mash and gravy on the side if you wish. People love the look of our pies—I guess it’s reminiscent of what we all picture a traditional Victorian pie to have been.
With pies, it is important that the ratio of filling to pastry works. There’s nothing worse than having too much pastry and not enough meat, which is often the case with pies that are made for the individual eater. What that meant for Pieminister was that we had to commission our own specific tins to be made.
From the start, Tristan and Jon picked up two really useful pieces of machinery: a pastry blocker (below left) to mould the shortcrust to the base and sides of the tin, and a pastry presser (below right), which places a rolled suet crust on the top of each pie in a pleasing round.
Uniformity and efficiency
They look pretty heavyweight, but that means we can get the same thickness of pastry each time. You still need to pull the handles down by hand, and we crimp the pastry by hand too. But they definitely help provide a uniformity and efficiency that’s essential when making so many pies.
The blocker, in particular, is useful because it cuts out the ‘middle man’ of the rolling pin. Each pie tin gets a lump of pastry dough in the base, and the blocker squashes it perfectly to the base and the sides. We should have them in home kitchens too, I think!
Some of our pies that are available nationally go through a slightly more automated pastry moulding process, just so we can do the numbers. But the original pastry blocker and presser are still used now, probably pressing 200 pies a day.
The fillings for the pies are cooked in advance before going into the raw pastry moulds. The pies are then baked for half an hour—meaning once they leave us, they’re totally ready to eat.
People love fillings like those in our Chicken of Aragon pie (chicken and tarragon), and the Kate and Sydney (steak and kidney). They’ve been on the menu since day one and are classics, I guess. Then there’s our Heidi pie, which is Somerset goat’s cheese, sweet potato, spinach and red onion—people love it, whether they’re vegetarian or carnivore. Also, the Moodog, which is smoked bacon, beef and ale, and just won three stars at the latest Great Taste Awards—we’re so pleased with that.
On occasion, we’ve tried to be more unusual, but it usually comes back to combinations that people know and appreciate already. That still means we can be diverse and global with the fillings, like with the Saag Pie-neer, which is pea, potato, spinach, chilli, paneer and mango.
My sister-in-law Camilla runs the stall at Borough, and has done almost since the beginning. She says it’s amazing what an incredibly loyal following we have there. But also that it’s funny how you can predict which fillings new customers are likely to go for, depending where they’re from.
We’re really proud that Londoners can get their fix of Pieminister pies at Borough Market. Our pies are so British and so London—both historically, but also in the more contemporaneous sense, in that we embrace global flavours while keeping the ingredients local.