Old-fashioned ways with fruit. Photograph by Jean Cazals
Old English fruit pies don't get much of a look-in these days, particularly as everyone seems to prefer to make French tarts - Tatin, fine aux pommes, aux poires, aux mangues, aux figues. Nought wrong with these. But an old-fashioned English fruit pie is one of the nicest things I know. My mother has made a wicked hot strawberry pie for as long as I can remember, athough that long ago it would not have been referred to as "wicked" - scrummy, cor lummy or just plain yummy, more like.

In terms of practicality, a pie is much more of a mess to serve than a neat tart. Perhaps that is why a tart may seem a safer bet. But a home- made fruit pie will always turn out, finally, to be more enjoyable than trying to reproduce a shop-bought - and by that I mean "patisserie-made" - or restaurant-style tart. Take the latter. The most popular, the individual tarte fine, is cooked to order, often using apples (and sometimes pears), thinly cut and layered on to thin discs of puff pastry with a little butter and sugar. This sort of tart must be cooked at the moment of ordering and not a minute before. The domestic oven often cannot cope with doing individual tarts such as this, for, say, six people. The temperature immediately drops when you put them in, and will never go up again because of the steam from the puff pastry and fruit.

The other tart, the French patisserie-style number, is fine, as long as you are prepared to make extra-short sweet pastry (a sod to roll at the best of times, much worse in warm weather) and bake it blind until perfectly cooked through, as there is nothing worse than a fruit tart with a soggy bottom. This is usually filled with either creme patissiere - a gorgeous, thick vanilla flavoured custard, similar to our custard slice filling, but even more wonderful when made at home with better ingredients (fresh vanilla for one) - or simply light sweetened whipped cream. The fruit is then piled on top, with strawberries and raspberries being the best choice. A dusting of icing sugar is the perfect finish, though some use a redcurrant jelly glaze, which I find a touch too sweet.

So, having inadvertently plugged these two tarts, what's so special about English fruit pies? Soft, sweet and crumbly immediately comes to mind; also warm, fragrant and wet from the fruit's juice. This is probably what turns me on most. Gooseberry pie is another favourite, and if you have been lucky enough to have a blueberry pie cooked for you by an American mother, you will know this can be the finest fruit pie in the world.

Make the pies deep. Lots of fruit is important, as it soon collapses when hot. The juice will almost certainly give you a soggy bottom, but that is unavoidable and, frankly, the whole point of a fruit pie - a touch gooey on the bottom and sugary-crisp on top. Some cooks prefer using a deep porcelain dish for a fruit pie, with only a pastry lid. This is fine too, but it isn't really a pie when all's said and done.

Hot Strawberry Pie, serves 6

Buy slightly over-ripe strawberries - they can be a bargain and work just as well as prime specimens. You will also need a loose-bottomed cake tin measuring 21cm/814" wide by 4cm/112" deep. I bought mine at Sainsbury's in the "Special Selection" department - it is brilliant for deep quiches, too.

for the pastry

250g/9oz chilled butter, cut into small pieces

500g/1lb 2oz self-raising flour

pinch of salt

1 egg yolk

50mls/2fl oz ice-cold water

for the filling

900g/2lbs fresh strawberries, hulled and cut in half lengthways

75g/3oz caster sugar (reserve 12oz for sprinkling on the crust)

1 beaten egg mixed with 1tbsp of milk

Pre-heat the oven to 400F/200C/gas mark 6

Blend together the butter, flour and salt in a food processor, electric mixer or manually until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Now tip into a large roomy bowl and gently mix in the water and egg yolk with cool hands or a knife, until amalgamated. (I do think that, finally, this is the best way to bind pastry together. It doesn't get beaten to oblivion by a machine and consequently results in light and crisp pastry. The use of self-raising flour also adds lightness.) Put into a plastic bag and chill in the fridge for at least one hour before rolling.

Lightly grease the cake tin. Roll out two-thirds of the pastry into a circle, not too thick. Carefully line the tin with it, allowing a slight excess to flop over the rim. Tip in the strawberries, sprinkle over the sugar and shake the tin slightly so that the sugar disperses. Lightly press down with your hands. Now brush a little of the beaten egg and milk around the edge of the pastry that lies just above the rim of the cake tin. Roll out the remaining one-third of pastry slightly thinner than the base. Carefully lift on to the pie and, with your fingers, lightly press the two pastry edges together. Then, with a sharp knife, cut through the joined edges almost flush to the rim. Now knock the edges together, again with your fingers, to form a crinkled edge all the way around (you may use the scraps to make some artful decorations on the lid if you feel moved so to do). Brush the whole surface with more of the beaten egg and milk and evenly sprinkle with some caster sugar (about a level tbsp). Make a couple of incisions in the centre of the pastry lid to allow steam to escape.

Put into the oven in the middle shelf with an empty roasting tin underneath to catch any dribbles that will almost certainly ooze out of the pie as it cooks. Cook for about 15 minutes, then turn down to 325F/ 170C/gas mark 4 for a further 30-40 minutes. Take out of the oven when the pastry is a rich golden colour and put on a large round plate. Leave in the tin until luke warm before removing. Cut in to wedges and serve with clotted or whipped cream.

Blueberry Pie, serves 6

Use the same recipe for the pastry as for the strawberry pie, and also use the same sort of tin. The procedure for assembly is also identical.

1 batch of pastry

900g/2lb blueberries, left whole

225g/5oz caster sugar

beaten egg and milk (as above)

Once the cake tin is lined with pastry, add a single layer of the blueberries and strew with some of the sugar. Continue like this until the fruit and sugar are used up. Top with the pastry as instructed in the previous recipe and cook for the same period of time and at identical temperatures. Also serve luke-warm and with cream.

Gooseberry, Bilberry or Blackcurrant Pie

One can make exactly the same pies using these soft summer fruits. Use 2lbs of fruit for all three pies. Bilberries need the same amount of sugar as strawberries, whereas blackcurrants and gooseberries require more, about 175g/6oz; when making a gooseberry version add a few flecks of butter to the fruit. A gooseberry pie should be accompanied by some sweet Alsatian wine, such as Gerwurtztraminer or Muscat d'Alsace. The affinity is notable

Comments