During a summer holiday, my wife and I decided to visit the lovely town of Arundel in West Sussex. It was lunch time when we arrived and the first thing we aimed for was a restaurant (though this often happens even when it isn't lunch time, usually when there is a sign saying 'Cream Teas Available'; that, however, is another story). The place we chose was a quaint, very old looking, hotel/restaurant called 'Arundel House'. I chose the now-infamous-in-my-home, 'Steak and Ale Pie' for my dinner. I have been on a quest ever since to find an equal or better to that pie. However, there is none! I have tried pies in Yorkshire, the Lake District, various towns around the country and none have surpassed Arundel House in Ale Pie perfection.
- An h2g2 Researcher
The Laws of the Pie
An authentic steak and ale pie must have a shortcrust pastry lid and come in an oven-proof porcelain or ceramic dish. To truly impress, it must contain the largest amount of actual meat ever seen in a pie. It must always be piping hot when received and stay that way, thanks to the heat-conservation properties of the dish. A truly authentic pie must also arrive accompanied by a selection of potatoes and seasonal vegetables to give balance to the whole meal.
Shopping for the Pie
To shop for a steak and ale pie, you must first decide whether you want to experience it at an establishment, take one home, or prepare it yourself. Depending on your decision, you will be in for a different, though still outstanding, gastronomic experience.
To find the pie at an establishment, you must seek out one offering traditional 'olde English fayre'. Being that the steak and ale pie is a variety of 'pub grub', your best bet is to look in a community or village pub. Were you to find yourself in the vicinity of the City (of London), you could always sniff out the nearest 'Pie and Ale' pub, courtesy of Fuller's brewery.
To bring one home, however, you must seek your prize in the chiller cabinet of an honest food retailer. One that is British in the extreme is preferable (unsurprisingly, there are many of those in the UK).
If, however, you have an eye for a little adventure and the willingness to give anything a go, nothing can match the experience of making a steak and ale pie yourself. Should this course of action appeal to you, read on.
There are several factors that influence the outcome of an outstanding steak and ale pie:
The Dish - You need one that holds heat well, so use a shallow ceramic crockpot or traditional pie dish.
The Meat - You need a good cut of beef, well-trimmed and suitable for long, slow cooking. A quality stewing or braising beef works best.
The Ale - For the sake of authenticity, this must be a traditional ale, even a stout will work, but if it is too bitter, you will need to tone it down with a dash of sugar. Some have been known to use cider or porter, and these are acceptable as variations on a theme. The ale provides a marinade base, into which you need to place your prepared, trimmed and cubed beef for at least two hours prior to cooking.
The Pastry - A truly traditional pie will be lovingly topped1 with a homemade shortcrust pastry. However, there are not many who will go down the route of preparing the pastry from scratch for a single pie. Enter the supermarket knight on its trusty steed carrying the ready-made packet of pastry. Buy it. Making it is a pain.
On the subject of variations on the theme, there are those who will introduce vegetables into the pie. More often than not, they do this in the mistaken belief that the healthy portion of veg will somehow provide a balance to the starch and protein of the dish. Do not be deceived. The vegetables go beside the pie, not inside. Lightly cooked or steamed vegetables are better for you than those stewed to death; besides, pie and chips is the way to go and chips would be just nasty inside the pie.
Salt and ground black pepper are the king and queen of seasoning and nutmeg is the prince. You massage the nutmeg and pepper into the meat before cooking and can add them to the marinade as well. However, keep the salt well away until the meat is cooked! Salt will pull the moisture out of the meat, making it tougher.
This dish needs a little more than just salt and pepper though; it needs a kick. You may think chilli would do it but you would be wrong. Think British, think authentic. That leaves you a choice of two items: mustard or horseradish. You pick, but don't overdo it — this is comfort food after all.
Making the Pie
- a ceramic or porcelain dish
- a packet of ready-made shortcrust pastry
- 850g lean braising or stewing steak, trimmed and cubed
- 1 large white onion, peeled then chopped finely
- 1 tbsp plain flour
- 250ml local ale
- 250ml hot water
- 1 cube quality beef stock
- salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste
- a dash of English mustard or grated horseradish
- 1 tspn vegetable oil for frying
- an egg
Place the beef in an oven-proof dish, having rubbed the meat with nutmeg and pepper, then cover with the ale of your choice and set aside for a couple of hours. You could do this the night before and place the dish, covered, in the bottom of your fridge.
When you are ready to begin the cooking process, bring out your dish of marinaded beef and set it aside. Place a pan on medium heat, drizzle some oil into it, chop the onion finely and drop it in to sautée gently. When the onion is a pale golden brown, take out your beef, piece by piece, dust with flour and drop into the pan to brown gently. Whisk the rest of the flour, the salt and mustard — or horseradish — into the marinade mixture left in the dish. Once you have browned the beef sufficiently, slowly add the marinade mixture, stock and water, then leave to simmer and reduce. Wash the dish, ready for use again.
While waiting for the liquid to reduce, roll out your pastry on a floured board. The stew needs to be moist but not wet when cooked, bearing in mind that some evaporation will take place in the oven. When it is ready, ladle the stew into your dish and drape the pastry over it. Using a knife, trim the edges and make a hole in the top. Fold in the edges of the hole and use your knife to press into the pastry around all the edges and make a scalloped pattern - for a really professional look, you may decide to cut out little patterns and add them around the edges of the hole. Brush the top of the pastry with a little whisked egg yolk to glaze.
Place in a pre-heated medium oven at about 180°C for about 40 minutes, or until the pastry is golden brown and crisp. You should expect some variation in cooking from different ovens. Some hold moisture in, some allow it out, some distribute the heat with a fan, others insist on charring the top or bottom of your creation. The time and temperature offered here are in the way of a generalised pointer. If you are uncertain how your oven will perform, keep your eye on proceedings and use the colour of the pastry as a guide. Golden brown and crisp is your aim.
To serve, use a large spoon to cut the pie in four then scoop out and transfer the stew with the pastry sitting on top on to the plate. On the side, you may offer any style of potatoes and/or vegetables of preference (try to choose something in season to maximise the overall taste sensation of the meal).
The homemade steak and ale pie is one of those British dishes that inspires at least a little obsession in children and adults, Brits and non-Brits, gourmets and gourmands, humans and cartoon characters alike; and though vegetarians may turn their noses up at it, they will still try to emulate it.