Cottage pie, top-crust pie, shepherd's pie, fish pie, pie with mash, with chips, with gravy. Steak and kidney, chicken and mushroom. Pie, pie, pie. I love pie. But then who doesn't love that most comforting of winter dishes? The word alone is enough to warm the heart and conjure visions of knives piercing crusty lids, releasing clouds of stream from piping hot fillings of tender meat, soft vegetables and rich, creamy sauce.
Hungry yet? Apparently you are, because Britain is going pie-crazy. Sales of pastry and potato-topped dishes are higher than they have been since the Seventies, with supermarkets and smaller purveyors of pies reporting sales of an extra 17m pies over the past two years, according to Nielsen, a market research firm. The pie market is now worth £229m, up 16 per cent since 2008, as shoppers with shallow pockets stock up on deep fillings to consume at home.
But, despite a push in supermarkets towards the gourmet end of pie territory, for every "tender asparagus tips and Portobello mushrooms in a creamy mushroom and herb sauce pie," (Waitrose: £1.78) there's an anaemic football-ground pasty waiting to turn your stomach. The only way to guarantee a good pie? Make it yourself.
I've come to the Baker Street branch of Canteen, a group of four London restaurants that knock out some of the capital's finest affordable British fare – including, I'm hoping, some exceedingly good pies. Cass Titcombe is the man in charge in the vast kitchen, where stock simmers in giant pans and cooks do prep for the evening service.
In 2005, the softly-spoken chef with a passion for British cuisine spotted a gap in the market for quick, keenly priced traditional food served in a modern setting. Think a slightly more modern Pizza Express, but with devilled kidneys on toast, potted duck, and treacle tart.
The first branch of Canteen, in east London's trendy Spitalfields Market, was a hit with critics and locals, quickly spawning three more outlets in the capital. They come for the daily roast, the fish and chips, the sausage and mash – and the pies. Each day brings two specials – one meat, one vegetable – from a list of a dozen or so pastry-topped delicacies that Titcombe devises every 18 months. They include classics such as steak and kidney, alongside fillings like pork, cider and mustard.
"Pies are easy," Titcombe assures me. "People get put off by the pastry, but it's really not hard to make a shortcrust pastry." But first, the filling. We're going for a roast chicken and leek number, one of Canteen's most popular pies. Titcombe has already roasted a chicken, so all that's left to do is to fry up and combine the ingredients.
The pastry rolling is just as straightforward, although when I attempt to create the pie's lid it takes on a distinctly Australian shape compared to Titcombe's perfect oval. But it's good enough, and the pie – crimped, pierced and brushed with egg – is thrown into the oven.
So what is it about pies that gets us drooling? Sophie Conran ought to know. The daughter of restaurant emperor, Sir Terence Conran, she's the author of Sophie Conran's Pies, a book of recipes published in 2006. She used to run a small business supplying posh pies to food-halls in Harrods and Harvey Nichols. "To me, pies represent the warmth of a family get together," she says. "When you take a pie out of the oven it looks a bit like a present – the culinary equivalent of a hug. You can prepare them in advance, they're fun to make, inexpensive and, if you use the best ingredients you can find, completely delicious."
Every spring, Conran sits on the panel at the British Pie Awards, hosted in May at the home of the pork pie, Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. Butchers and bakers large and small and from every corner of Britain descend on St Mary's Church there, to tempt judges with their steak and kidney pies, fish pies, apple pies, pasties and football-ground pies – to name just some of the categories in the world's tastiest pie-off. "Last year I had to taste 46 savoury pies," Conran says. "We look for pastry texture, sogginess, amount of fill and overall taste. The overall standard is very high." If only all pies were as good. "I remember having bad pies at school," recalls Titcombe, who's poised to crack open the oven door. "And you still see poor excuses filled with too much junk designed to bulk them out. Then you get restaurants – pubs, usually – where chefs cook a bit of pastry separately, slap it on a casserole and call it a pie. That's not a pie."
Titcombe also warns against a growing trend for over-adventurous fillings. "A few years ago, I did some consultancy work for a few different pie companies. Separately, two of them gave me the same brief – to create outlandish recipes. One company wanted a Thai chicken pie and a Moroccan lamb pie – like a tagine in pastry. I did it because it was work, but I did think it was going a bit far."
Ping! Pie's ready. Titcombe retrieves it from the oven and brings it out to the dining room, where it's joined by two he made earlier – a celeriac, bacon and cheddar, and a chard, broccoli and roast onion (see recipes below). He cuts first into our chicken pie, slicing through the beautifully browned pastry crust, and scooping out its juicy filling. The smell, which carries a hint of the mustard's sharpness, is amazing. And, needless to say, it is delicious.
After the feast, before I waddle towards the door, I ask Titcombe if he knows anyone who doesn't love pie. "Yeah, my son, Oscar," he replies. "He's 10 and won't eat pastry. Give him a sausage roll and he'll eat the sausage and throw away the rest..." Oscar, you don't know what you're missing.
To top it all: Pie recipes
This recipe is enough to top- and bottom-line a pie for six people. If you prefer to have pastry just on the top, halve the quantity or, alternatively, buy a good quality, ready-made, all-butter puff pastry.
500g plain white flour
1 beaten egg
80-100ml cold water
1) Place flour in a mixing bowl. Add butter, cut into cubes, and salt, and rub gently with your fingertips until it is like fine breadcrumbs.
2) Beat the egg with a little cold water. Mix into the butter and flour mix, until it forms a dough. You may need a little more water at this stage.
3) Wrap in clingfilm and chill for an hour.
Roast chicken and leek pie
For the chicken:
A two-kilo organic chicken (or the best you can afford)
A bulb of garlic
Small bunch of tarragon (pick off the leaves and keep for later)
Half a lemon
Salt and pepper
1) Stuff the chicken with salt and pepper, the tarragon stalks, half the garlic bulb, and the half lemon.
2) Place in a deep casserole dish with a lid.
3) Roast at 200C for 30 minutes without the lid. Then cover and cook for a further 30 minutes at 160 degrees.
4) Remove from oven and allow to cool down until you can handle the meat. Strain, reserve the cooking juices, skimming off any fat
5) Pick all the meat from the chicken.
For the pie mix:
1 medium onion
2 sticks of celery
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
250ml double cream
Cooking juices from the chicken
1-2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Chopped tarragon leaves
1 beaten egg
Salt and pepper
1) Dice and wash the leeks, celery and onions.
2) Heat the milk and cream in a saucepan.
3) Melt butter in a heavy-bottom pan and sweat the onions and celery for five minutes. Add the leeks for a further 10 minutes, until soft and translucent but not brown. Add the garlic and cook for one more minute.
4) Sprinkle the flour over this and cook for a few minutes, stirring. Ladle in the hot milk and cream, stirring continually.
Remove from the heat when it begins to simmer.
5) Add the chicken and all other ingredients. Mix well, taste for seasoning and leave to cool.
6) Remove pastry from fridge half-an-hour before you need to roll it.
7) Sprinkle flour on work surface and roll out pastry to a thickness of 3-4mm.
8) Butter your pie dish with another 20g of softened butter and line with pastry, ensuring that a little spills over the dish.
9) Fill with pie mix and then brush around top edge with some of the beaten egg. Lay the top over the dish, crimping the edges together with your fingers or a fork dipped in flour.
10) Use a sharp knife to trim the edges from the top of the dish. Brush the whole pie with the remaining beaten egg, prick the centre of the pie a few times with a knife point in the centre.
11) Bake at 170C for 30-40 minutes until golden brown.
Chard, broccoli and roast onion pie
450g Swiss chard
350g sprouting broccoli
30ml olive oil
5 sprigs of thyme
4 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt and pepper
1) Remove stalks from chard and dice. Separate the leaves and shred coarsely.
2) Peel the onions and cut into thick slices.
Toss with half the olive oil, salt and the picked thyme leaves.
3) Roast at 160C for 30 minutes, turning a few times during cooking.
4) Heat up the remaining olive oil in a pan, add the butter and then the chard stalks.
5) Cook for 5 minutes on a medium heat until just tender. Add the garlic and cook for a further minute.
6) Add the chard leaves and cook, stirring for one more minute, until they start to look slightly wilted. Remove from heat and add the broccoli and the roasted onions. Season.
7) Follow steps 6-11, above.
Celeriac, bacon and cheddar pie
300g streaky bacon
220g diced mature cheddar
220g crème fraiche
Handful of parsley
Worcester sauce to taste
1) Peel and dice the celeriac, place in a saucepan covered with cold water and a few pinches of salt, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 mins or until the clereriac is just tender. Drain and put to one side.
2) Grill bacon until crispy and chop into strips.
3) Mix everything together and place into your pie dish.
4) Follow steps 6-11, above.