It has never really occurred to me to make my own pork pie. I mean, why would anyone want to, with so many good ones around in the shops? You can't walk more than a hundred yards down the average high street without coming upon a perfectly acceptable version.
Well, let me tell you why. Rarely have I enjoyed making anything quite so much: the bubbling stock, with its grotesque peeping trotters; the soft, warm dough to mould into shape like the potter I always wanted to be; the proud moment of prizing the huge, heavy, porky thing from its tin. Secretly I probably just fancied the challenge of making one to see if I could do it. What I hadn't expected was to end up with something so stonkingly good.
I am not always sure about the fillings for some commercial pies. Too pink, too anonymous. I wanted something with clearly defined nuggets of meat, pinky brown and lightly spiced. Lots of pork belly finely chopped and a little minced bacon were obvious choices for the basis of the filling, but my butcher suggested some pork shoulder, too. Hot water pastry is something I haven't made since domestic science lessons, unless you count the time I thought it would be a good idea for the Christmas mince pies. I had forgotten how much I like the forbidden fruit that is good old-fashioned lard.
I should explain that I am exceptionally fond of a slice of pork pie. Opening the fridge on a hot afternoon to be greeted by a cool, crimp-edged pie and its hidden treasure of generously seasoned pork is one of my favourite moments of summer. I can never work out which bit I like best, having long ago moved on from being the kid who diligently scraped off every last dot of jelly before he would touch the meat and pastry of his Melton Mowbray.
So here I am doing battle with pastry that would be difficult enough to deal with if it was cold, but this stuff is warm and slithery and seemingly incapable of standing up on its own. The faster I mould it up the side of my impromptu cake tin (a stand-in for a traditional wooden pork pie mould) the faster it slides down. Leaving it to cool a bit further sorts out the problem, and suddenly a messy job becomes a pleasingly tactile one. Pressing the warm pastry up the sides of the cake tin is like being back in art lessons at school. Will I be as proud of this as I was of my first misshapen pot? The one that my parents kept trying to put away in the cupboard. Where the dough slides down a little I simply hold it in place with one hand while stuffing in the seasoned meat filling with the other.
Seasoning is the make-or-break moment with something like this. Sage is a knee-jerk seasoning, but I also add chopped thyme leaves and ground mace. This latter flavour is probably one of the least-used spices – it is the ground outer casing of the nutmeg – and gives a warm and dusky note to pâtés. It is used subtly so that it works hand-in-glove with the other seasonings. I'm not sure you ever want to put something in your mouth and think: Ah, yes, mace.
What with the stock, the filling and the pastry, making a pork pie is something to file under "a bit of performance". Yet it is undoubtedly a thing of beauty – plump, handsome, yet unmistakably homely. Something I wouldn't hesitate to make again. Next time I might try Jane Grigson's idea of adding a little anchovy essence to the filling, or try it using a proper wooden mould instead of a make-do version with the cake tin. But then I rather like making do.
1kg boned pork shoulder
250g pork belly
250g streaky bacon
2 bushy sprigs of thyme
2 sage leaves
½ tsp ground mace
½ tsp ground white pepper
2 good pinches ground nutmeg
For the pastry:
1 beaten egg
1 x 20cm cake tin
For the stock:
bones from the pork (left)
2 pig's trotters
1 small carrot
1 small bunch of parsley stalks
1 rib of celery
6 black peppercorns
Make the filling
You need to chop the pork into small cubes, about 5mm in size. You could mince it, but the texture will be much more interesting if you can bear to cut it by hand. Or you could chop half, then whizz the other briefly in the food processor.
Finely chop the bacon.
Remove the thyme leaves from their stems, add the sage leaves and chop both finely. Mix the herbs into the chopped meats together with the mace, white pepper, nutmeg and 1 tsp each of salt and coarsely ground black pepper.
Make the pastry
Put the lard and water into a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Sift the flour with a good pinch of salt into a large bowl. Pour the hot lard and water into the flour, mix with a wooden spoon, then leave until cool enough to handle. The pastry must be warm when you start to work it.
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Lightly grease and flour your mould or cake tin (with removable bottom). Pull off a quarter of the pastry and roll it into a lid that will fit the top of the cake tin. Roll the remaining pastry to fit the base of the tin. Lay it in the bottom, then firmly push the dough up the sides with your hands. It should spread quite easily. If it slides down, leave it to cool a bit more. Make certain there are no holes or tears. This is crucial, as the jelly will leak out. Spoon the pork filling into the lined cake tin and press it down. It should come almost to the top of the pastry.
Brush the edges of the pastry above the meat with beaten egg. Lower the lid into place and press tightly to seal with the edges. Poke a small hole in the lid to let out the steam and put the tin on a baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes, then lower the heat to 160C/gas mark 3 and bake for 90 minutes until the pastry is pale gold. Brush with the beaten egg and return to the oven for 30 minutes.
Make the stock
Put the bones into a deep saucepan with the onion, carrot, parsley stalks and the celery rib. Cover with water and bring to the boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and leave the liquid to cook for an hour, watching the water level carefully and topping up where necessary.
Remove from the heat, decant the liquid into a bowl and leave to cool. Refrigerate overnight. If it has set very firmly, simply remove the fat from the top of the stock, transfer to a saucepan and bring to the boil. If it is still on the runny side, then remove the fat as before, pour into a saucepan and boil hard until it is reduced to about 400ml. Season carefully with salt.
When the pie is ready, pour the stock into a jug and then pour it carefully through the hole in the top of the pastry. A funnel is invaluable here. Leave the pie to cool, then refrigerate overnight.
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