At the Royal Oak pub near Maidenhead, head chef Dominic Chapman focuses on ragoûts baked in pie dishes under a single pastry lid. Rather than reinventing traditional pies, he is bringing more complexity to the taste. Michael Raffael reports
Pubs have always been the natural home for meat pies. Any competent home cook, working behind the scenes, can rustle up a decent steak and kidney pie. Failing that there are convenience products to fall back on. A couple of minutes in a combi-microwave oven and they're ready, filling and able to satisfy tens of thousands of customers.
Their massive popularity at the popular end of catering has meant that ambitious chefs haven't given pies a second glance. It's a misplaced form of culinary snobbery. Pies are one of the big successes of British cookery, with a tradition going back to the Middle Ages.
Savoury pies fall into three groups. The raised pie (think Melton Mowbray pork pie), made from a hot water crust paste filled with meat, is for eating cold. Double-crusted pies tend to be prepared with short pastry, and contain meat and gravy. Lastly are the ragoûts baked in pie dishes under a single pastry lid, sometimes puff pastry, often short.
At the Royal Oak pub in Paley Street near Maidenhead, head chef Dominic Chapman focuses on this last group. Under a crisp crust, he buries three different textured meats in gravy that's more of a port and Madeira sauce. He's not reinventing traditional pies, but he's bringing more complexity to their taste.
Chapman's recipe for oxtail and kidney pie is versatile. Variations include chicken, ham and leek; rabbit and bacon; hare and trotter; and poacher's pie. It's no more than what many Victorian cooks did. Dependent on budget or on the pairs of hands in the kitchen, it can be ratcheted down to something less pricey but just as succulent.
Dominic Chapman uses different types of flavour and texture under a pie crust. What looks simple has a number of components.
Day 1 â- Brown and braise the oxtail with a piece of streaky bacon or pancetta
â- Cool it, remove and flake the meat
â- Prepare the sauce base from the braising liquor
â- Poach the ham hocks, cool and flake them
â- Blanch and poach the veal kidneys
â- Make batches of suet pastry
â- Prepare onion compote, sautéd mushrooms and beurre manié
Day 2 â- Roll the pastry lids
â- Finish the sauce
â- Make up the pies to order and bake them (see page 47 for the recipe)
BROWN AND CHICKEN VEAL STOCK
The Royal Oak's basic brown stock is a blend of light chicken stock and brown veal stock, 2 litres chicken to 1 litre veal, reduced by half.
Ingredients (For 18 pies)
180ml oil or beef dripping
700g mirepoix - carrot, onion, leek, celery, garlic
10 bay leaves
3-4 caramelised tomatoes
Caramelised button mushrooms
1kg green streaky bacon/pancetta
Brown stock to cover, 5-7 litres depending on pan size
Method If the oxtails come whole, cut them into segments through the natural joints (picture 1). You can brown the oxtail either on top of the range or in the oven. For the picture (2), Chapman browned two tails on the range. In the oven oxtail benefits from a far more even colour all over.
Heat half the oil in a pan and brown the oxtail pieces thoroughly on all sides. Heat the rest of the oil in another pan and sauté or roast the vegetables until they've softened and started caramelising.
Put the meat and mirepoix in a large pan (here a 1/1 gastronorm container 530mm x 325mm) with herbs, tomato, mushrooms and bacon (3). Pour over hot stock to cover (4). Fit a sheet of foil on top. Bake in a moderate oven at 175Â°C until the meat is tender and comes away from the bones easily - approximately 3 hours (5).
Strain off the cooking liquor and reserve for the sauce. Chill the piece of bacon and cut it into 18 bite-sized cubes.
Flake the oxtail from the bones, chill and reserve.
Ingredients (For 18 pies)
2 gammon/ham hocks
1 chopped leek
1 celery stick
1 head of garlic
7 bay leaves
Water to cover - approx 5-6 litres
Method Put the hocks in a large pan of cold water and bring to the boil, then refresh. Place in a clean pan, cover with cold water and add all the above ingredients. Bring to simmering point and leave on the side of the range to poach until tender, about 3 hours.
Remove the meat from the pan, discard the rind. Coarsely flake the meat. Chill.
Ingredients (For 18 pies)
3 veal kidneys
Method Split the kidneys lengthways to expose the fat and gristle (6). Pare this away and coarsely chop the kidneys. Put them in a pan of cold water and bring to the boil. Drain them into a colander. Wash them by hand in running water until their distinct smell is less prominent (7).
Transfer them to a fresh pan. Add the herbs, bring to simmering point and simmer until they lose their rubberiness - about 1.5 hours (8). Allow to cool in stock then drain and chill.
Ingredients 500ml red wine
4 litres braising liquor from oxtail
In separate pans reduce the three wines by about three-quarters each. Reduce the braising liquid by about a third. Add the wines and simmer until about 2 litres of sauce base remains. Reserve (9).
This is the same recipe that cooks use to make a suet pudding, the difference being that it's going to be baked, not steamed.
Ingredients (For 18 pies make two batches)
600g self-raising flour
Pinch of salt
275ml (maybe a touch more) iced water
Prepare the pastry by hand. Mix the flour, salt and suet together.
Add the water and work the dough with your fingers into a smooth ball. Knead as little as possible (10).
Make up the basic recipe here, which is enough for about two batches of pies.
Work 250g plain flour into 250g softened butter, just above melting point. Chill, but during service keep it soft enough to spoon into the sauce.
ONIONS AND WILD MUSHROOMS
Stew 2kg of sliced onions in butter until they have rendered down and started to caramelise. Chill. Sauté 500g mixed wild mushrooms in butter, season and chill.
Oxtail £5 per kg
Veal kidneys £5 per kg
Hocks £3-£5 each
Cost price £4.75
Selling price £17.95 (inc VAT)
Batch size 18 portions, profit £172.80
OXTAIL AND KIDNEY PIE
Ingredients (Serves four)
400ml sauce base
2-3 heaped tbs beurre manié
Salt and pepper
4 heaped tbs prepared onion
200g flaked hock
4 bite-sized cubes streaky bacon/pancetta
400g flaked oxtail
80g wild mushrooms
4 x 100g rolled-out suet pastry lids
Method Preheat the oven to 175Â°C (convection) or 190Â°C (standard). Heat the sauce base to simmering point, stir in the beurre manié and heat until thickened (11). The sauce should have a light, not claggy, coating texture. Check the seasoning and keep hot.
Fill the pie bowl: put the onions at the bottom (12), then the hock, bacon (13), oxtail, kidneys and wild mushrooms (14).
Pour over the hot sauce, making sure it doesn't sit on top of the meat (15).
Brush the pastry very lightly with egg wash. Lay it "egged" side down on the pie with the edges overlapping (16). Seal the edges to the side of the bowl and trim them. Brush the pastry lid with egg wash (17). Prick a hole in the top to let the steam escape. Bake for 20 minutes.
Tricks and variations When braising the oxtail, add any lean offcuts of beef. They'll add to the stock's flavour.
Always pour the finished sauce over the meat while hot, so it coats the meat evenly.
Brush the underside of the pastry with egg wash too. It makes fitting the lid easier.
Flip through Dominic Chapman's CV and it's clear that his two main influences have been Rowley Leigh and Heston Blumenthal.
He has worked two spells with the latter, first as a Fat Duck chef de partie, then as the Hind's Head's chef. It's there that he discovered his enthusiasm for pie making, fuelling it with trips to Hampton Court Palace alongside Blumenthal, who was researching Tudor cookery.
During the reign of Henry VIII, the kitchens there had their own pastry department with four baking ovens. Chapman's pies, filled with gravy and flaked meats borrow 16th century ideas, but they've been adapted less Á la "Dinner", more according to rules of classical cookery.
At the Royal Oak, Michael Parkinson's pub near Maidenhead, where he's been in charge since 2007, he always puts a savoury pie on his menu. In keeping with the 46 seat pub restaurant's status (Michelin star, AA Restaurant of the Year 2008-2009), he invents combinations that look completely unpretentious, but which disguise high-level craftsmanship.
Photography by Lisa Barber (http://www.lisabarber.co.uk/)