Alice Hancock

The capital’s best pies

The capital's best pies
The Camberwell Arms
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It seemed a bit rough – and very American – when in 2006 That 70s show actor Wilmer Valderrama described (then) teen girlfriend Mandy Moore’s efforts in bed as good but not 'like warm apple pie'. Yet on an austere January evening on the other side of the Atlantic, I do wonder if nothing can really beat the comforts of a truly excellent pie.

The anticipation of pushing a fork through the pastry. An oozing middle revealed. The steaming aromas that furl out. And that’s even before the embrace of the first mouthful, succulent savoury or sweet. As Margot Henderson, co-proprietor of Rochelle Canteen, one of London’s finest pie-making establishments, says: eating a pie is 'a little like unwrapping a present' and gosh in January there is a dearth of presents.

Astoundingly – given the Brits chomp through an average of ten pies per week, according to research by pastry makers Jus-Rol – the pie does not come from this rainy isle. It’s thought that Ancient Egyptians were first to encase ingredients in a starchy wrapping and the habit was picked up by the Romans with recipes for such delicacies as asparagus pie appearing in the Roman cookery writer Apicius’ work around 1st century AD.

Pies were transported to Britain in the minds and stomachs of invading Roman armies, although in early instances the pastry case was made to preserve the filling and not (shock horror) for consumption. That came later when cooks realised that really pastry served the dual purpose of edible wrapping: the world’s first pre-packed takeaway meal.

I daren’t go into the arguments of whether shortcrust or hot water crust pastry is best here. Or if a pasty counts as a pie. Or if a pie is a pie if it only has a puffed pastry top.

Suffice to say, when in London, I cannot resist the suet pastry and sheer enormity of Rochelle Canteen’s pies. One portion is big enough to feed two – or maybe an abstemious three. The Dexter beef and Guinness tickled by homemade horseradish, all tender meat and smokey stout is, I think, as close to pie perfection as you get. Then there is St John’s, of course, or for something won't dent your wallet as much the excellent Piebury Corner in Holloway, Highbury and King's Cross. They do very good vegan and vegetarian pies for those less inclined to a meat filling.

Steak and stilton pie, The Windmill Arms

Henderson’s other favourite is the chicken pie at the Camberwell Arms. Pies are, after all, the classic British pub fare.

No doubt George Orwell and Dylan Thomas would be delighted to know that the owners of their old haunt in Fitzrovia, The Newman Arms, have returned decent homemade pies unapologetically slick with gravy to the old boozer’s menu this year. They don’t quite beat the crimped and crusty award winning pies at The Windmill Arms in Mayfair, however. Aim for the venison or chicken, order a large extra jug of gravy and forget about trying any of the other mains.

Chicken and mushroom pie, Piebury Corner

Of course, if we’re talking London and pies it would be remiss, possibly even sacrilege, not to mention the capital’s eel, pie and mash shops – a throwback to London’s docker days when eels were plentiful and cheap. The oldest surviving – and favoured Rio Ferdinand, the Beckhams and the like – is M Manze, which has outposts in Bermondsey, Peckham and Sutton.

But I’ve always liked no nonsense Golden Pie in Battersea for its classic chequerboard frontage, hearteningly stodgy pastry and virulent liquor, a sauce originally made from the liquid used to stew the eels and now a lustrous parsley jus.

The question is once you’ve gulped down the savoury, do you have room for the aforementioned apple pie for pud? Surely yes and, in the dark of a glum evening, I think I’d take it to bed too.