THERE'S MURDER ON THE MENU

A cooking detective isn't an obvious recipe for success, but 'Pie in the Sky' secured a loyal band of fans. Michael Bateman praises its ingredients it is three lines long but could possibly be four
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The Independent Culture
The present series of Pie in the Sky is rumoured to be the last. Hopefully not, as it's not only an engaging programme about a restaurant owner/chef who doubles as a detective, but it also one of the most up- to-date and informative programmes about food on television.

It's not very accurate in the shape of its hero, Detective Inspector Henry Crabbe, played by Richard Griffiths, who is a man of some girth (or are they air pillows?). These days you don't find chefs built on these lines, the exception being the spherical New Orleans Cajun cook, Paul Prudhomme.

The modern chef tends to be lean, even athletic. Some are apparently fuelled by nervous tension, like the charismatic Marco Pierre White or Raymond Blanc. Others are brutally fit such as the health-conscious Anton Mosimann who circles Hyde Park in the manner of a marathon runner or the Savoy's fit Anton Edelmann who runs for an hour in the morning and plays squash every evening. The Chelsea Hotel's Bruno Loubet has been seen stroking a racing four on the boat-race course at Hammersmith.

The sight of Richard Griffiths, huffing and puffing in pursuit of villains, stretches credulity to breaking point. But seeing him put food to his mouth, stirring a sauce with skill, picking over fresh produce with a critical eye, that's acting of a high order.

To food-lovers, the interest in the series lies not only in the handling of restaurant food (see box for Crabbe's typical menu) but also in the subplots. Each episode of Pie in the Sky airs a food issue of the sort that faces every restaurant every day. Some are lighthearted such as tonight's "Cutting the Mustard" episode, others are more controversial.

The first programme ("Squashed Tomato") of this new series dealt with EC interference in our horticulture. It focused on a part-time vegetable grower who discovers it is illegal to sell his rare varieties of tomatoes, the colourful and tasty Green Zebra, Scotland Yellow and Brandywine. This is not fiction; these are among hundreds of varieties preserved in the seed "library" at the Henry Doubleday Research Station, Ryton, near Coventry.

When the snooping lady inspector from the fictional ministry of Food and Agriculture (Ms Smiley) catches our hero serving a multi-coloured tomato salad (with olive oil, rocket and shavings of Parmesan), Crabbe and the gardener are carpeted. Don't they realise, says the unsmiling Ms Smiley, that under an EC directive of 1970 every variety grown has to be registered - and at an initial cost of pounds 2,000, and thereafter pounds 700 a year. It's OK if you buy proprietary seeds from the big suppliers, they've paid the registration fee.

But, says our indignant hero, this discriminates against small growers. "It's not my problem," says the insensitive (though evidently not uncultured) Ms Smiley, echoing Gertrude Stein: "A tomato is a tomato is a tomato."

In one stirring episode Henry Crabbe had a tussle with an Environmental Health Officer (EHO) who determined that Crabbe should use intensively- farmed, ministry-approved factory eggs rather than fresh eggs from his free-range hens in the garden. (Happy ending - the bureaucratic EHO is replaced by one of gourmet inclinations).

In another episode Crabbe takes up the cudgel against machine-made bread. He champions a woman baking hand-crafted country bread who is threatened by a new bread factory in town. Crabbe sees off the competition, only to find that the woman succumbs to the same methods.

Pie in the Sky was conceived and written by Andrew Payne, a veteran writer who has contributed scripts to Lovejoy, Minder and Shoestring. This idea, of a Falstaffian detective-constable, was entirely his own. "I love the idea of a reluctant hero," says Andrew Payne. "He's supposed to be solving horrendous crimes, but his mind is really on whether he could marinate the beef in Guinness or red wine."

But, Andrew Payne hopes, there's more to Pie in the Sky than Crabbe's gourmandising. Cooking is a metaphor for his attitude to police work. "The kitchen sets the scene, reflects his integrity in searching out good, honest ingredients. But recipes are clear-cut and easier to control than crime of course." The inspiration for Pie in the Sky was provided by Andrew Payne's partner, food writer Lindsey Bareham, author of the much-lauded In Praise of the Potato. Travelling with her, when she was reviewing restaurants provided many ideas, such as the strange case of a restaurant being wrecked not by a bad review but by a good one.

"After a rave review, this restaurant was inundated," says Andrew Payne. "But the reviewer had insulted some of the locals at the bar in print. They were offended and didn't come back."

Suddenly the restaurant was at the mercy of a faddish clientele. Cliff Jagger or Mick Richard's PA, or whoever would book in a party of 12, then cancel at the last minute turning a potential profit to a financial loss in a second.

Andrew Payne would like to think restaurauts existed to serve reasonable food at decent prices. But in England what he actually sees is a bear- pit in which class battles are fought out.

"Food can be intimidating to people who don't understand it," he says. "You often find a conspiracy between the chef and the customers, who are all pretending to like the duck breast on a bed of raspberries and not admit they hate it."

He deplores the peculiarly English habit of creating elitist groups for no good reason. "Restaurants are hijacked by people with a liking for clubs."

Most miserable of all, he says, are country restaurants. "You'll find the local bourgeoisie patting itself on the back because it belongs to an exclusive eating club. They can pronounce 'aioli'. But what you've actually got is dreadful, over-furnished dining rooms and nouvelle cuisine food, badly done. In the country people don't complain, they think it is poncey."

It is to redress this balance that Andrew Payne first created Crabbe's Utopian country restaurant - somewhere in the Thames Valley - the very "pie in the sky". It's a place that draws on the best of seasonal, local produce. Cook Henry Crabbe reflects Andrew Payne's views, rejecting menu- speak such as "a symphony of seafood and freshly-picked autumn leaves". Food is never described as "fayre" and there are no individual portions of milk or butter provided "for your convenience".

His menu is in the best of Modern British good taste, thanks to Lindsey Bareham. Simple British foods done well abound - bubble and squeak, toad- in-the-hole and cullen skink (the Scottish soup with smoked haddock). Fish and chips are OK, as long as they are well cooked. So are mushy peas, but they will probably be minted.

Crabbe has a patriotic nostalgia for the best of British, but he is no little Englander. The steak and kidney pie which is his signature dish has a pastry recipe inspired by the cook at the nearby Chinese restaurant.

Here is Crabbe's classic pie, as interpreted by Lindsey Bareham; the second recipe is a quick supper dish made with Dijon mustard, in homage to tonight's episode, "Cutting the Mustard".

STEAK AND KIDNEY PIE WITH GUINNESS

Serves 6

900g/2lb chuck steak, trimmed of fat and cut into 3.5cm/1.2in pieces

350g/12oz ox kidney, cored and chopped

150ml/14 pint Guinness

4 tablespoons beef dripping or lard

2 medium onions, sliced

3 tablespoons flour, liberally seasoned with salt and freshly-milled black pepper

2 large mushrooms, sliced

400ml/34 pint beef stock or water

1 bayleaf

4 sprigs of thyme

For the pastry:

225g/8oz self-raising flour

110g/4oz shredded suet or lard

salt and freshly-milled black pepper

1 egg yolk mixed mixed with a splash of milk

Place the steak and kidney in a bowl with the Guinness and herbs. Cover and leave to marinate for at least four hours, preferably overnight. Drain the meat, reserving the marinade. Toss the meat in the seasoned flour. Heat one tablespoon of the dripping or lard in a large heavy pan and gently fry the onions for five minutes. Remove the onions to a plate, add more of the dripping to the pan and fry the floured meat in batches until it is browned on all sides. Return the onions, the rest of the meat and any remaining flour to the pan. Stir thoroughly, then add the mushrooms, marinade and stock or water. Bring slowly to a simmer, stirring, then cover the pan and cook gently for one-and-a-half hours. Taste the gravy, adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper and remove the herbs. Transfer to a deep pie dish, place a pie funnel in the middle and leave to cool.

To make the pastry, sift the flour into a bowl, sprinkle in the suet or add the lard, season, and mix lightly with your hands. Sprinkle in two tablespoons of cold water, adding more as you mix with a knife. As it begins to clump together, use you hands to work it into a smooth, elastic dough. Leave to rest for five minutes then roll out the pastry slightly thicker than normal. Cut a 2cm (1in) strip and lay it round the inside edge of the pie dish. Dampen it with water then put the pastry lid in place. Trim and crimp the edge, knocking it back with the flat blade of a knife so that the actual edge looks as deep as possible. Make a small steam-hole in the centre and cut some leaves from the pastry trimmings to decorate the top. Paint the pie lid with the glaze. Bake in an oven pre-heated to 400F/ 200C/Gas 6 for 15 minutes, then lower the heat to 350F/ 180C/Gas 4 and cook for 30 minutes until the pastry is golden-brown.

LINDSEY BAREHAM'S DIJON CHICKEN

Serves 2

2 skinned chicken breasts

2 slices wholemeal bread

2 tablespoons smooth Dijon mustard

1 egg

flour for dusting

salt and freshly-milled black pepper

15g/12oz butter

1 tablespoon cooking oil

lemon wedges to serve

You will also need two sheets of greaseproof paper. Spread one out on a flat surface and lay out the chicken breasts with plenty of space between and around them. Cover with the second piece of paper and gently bash the meat until flattened and about half as big again. Smear one side of each escalope with mustard then season.

Remove the crusts from the bread, tear into pieces and blitz in the food processor to make fine breadcrumbs. Place in a shallow bowl. Sieve three to four tablespoons of flour into another bowl and whisk the egg in a third bowl. Dip the escalope in the flour, shaking off any excess, then in the egg and finally, in the breadcrumbs.

Five minutes before you're ready to eat, heat together the butter and cooking oil over a medium flame. When good and hot, slip in the escalopes. Cook without moving for about two minutes then flip over and cook the other side; both sides should be crusted and golden. If not cook for a minute or so more. Serve with lemon wedges. !

CRABBE'S TYPICAL MENU

Fresh pea and mint soup

Chicken and bacon terrine, green tomato chutney

Smoked eel fillets, horseradish sauce

Fresh asparagus

Steak and kidney pie, mashed potatoes, buttered cabbage

Smoked haddock omelette, new potatoes, spinach

Roast chicken, bread sauce, roast potatoes, runner beans

Vegetable pot-au-feu, steamed rice, tomato relish

Gooseberry Fool

Summer pudding

Stilton or farmhouse Cheddar, celery hearts and pickled onions

Coffee or tea, rum and brandy truffles

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