The pie-cook and the pie-consumer are both lucky if the smell of the pie ‘sells’ not only its desirability as biological fuel but also remembrance of pies past.” 

“It could be argued that there is an element of entertainment in every pie, as every pie is inherently a surprise by virtue of its crust”

Pie: A Global History. (2012) Janet Clarkson.

At the risk of bringing back bulletins from the edges of experience, memories of school dinners are shadowy and grim in equal measure.

A theory, let’s call it Item 1, that I developed after many years of recovery from their consumption goes as follows: ‘the better the school, the poorer the food’. I went to a better school.

Item 2, why was it was called ‘dinner’ when it was always served at lunchtime? A clearly slack English department, then and now, still seem to let that one go.

Those memories, dimming by the day, can occasionally reveal true horror.

Our team of rotund, red-faced, dinner-ladies, clearly picked from central casting, were, in all other respects, affable and easy-going although some could certainly have provided the muse for a range of Toby Jugs.

However once apron draw strings were fully secured, their approach to vegetable cooking resembled hand-to-hand fighting – no surrender their mantra. Peas, beans, potatoes, cabbage or sprouts were cooked to submission (it seems an entire generation of dinner-ladies were specifically trained to undertake a rigorously unyielding approach to boiling). With the vegetables relieved of all nutrients, the remaining fetid green water was poured down an outside drain as if discharging into a medieval midden, the bouquet I imagine, being somewhat  similar. Thursday’s cauliflower, often overcome by an unfathomable variety of melted cheese, could barely support its own structural weight and would slump at the sight of a fork. Mashed potato had the consistency of day-old wallpaper paste.

But when the meat course favoured cheap, imported lamb, which it invariably did, gobbets of unattached fat – there was no lean – were smuggled out of the canteen in the top pocket of a blazer, someone else’s if you were smart. All unwanted food was sneaked from the canteen so as to be surreptitiously distributed across the playing field – very much in the manner of the The Great Escape. The reason was unarguable, if food was left on our plates, forfeiture of afternoon break-time was the certain outcome.

Although my early school days were affected by a shrugging indiferrence to the gastronomic history of our country, I manage to treasure one redeeming lunchtime course – tray-bake meat and potato pie. Not completely sure of its contents then or now, I presume it was beef but I can’t swear to it, but it heralded a modest reward for enduring a double period of life-threatening rugby practice in the driving Mortlake rain.

A lifetime’s search to replicate that primordial recipe was finally rewarded with the purchase of the publication, Pie. The book highlights a suitably authentic recipe which I make on a seasonal basis, often late in the year, when rugby is merely televised. Replete with elements of both entertainment and surprise beneath the crust, it helps to rose-tint the glasses I must don whenever school dinners are recalled.

Meat and Potato Pie from Pie (2009) Angela Boggiano

500g shortcrust pastry

2 tbsp milk to glaze

1 tbsp olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, crushed

700g good quality coarse-minced beef

2 tbsp plain flour

200ml beef stock

2 tbsp tomato purée

2 tbsp HP brown sauce

2 large potatoes, peeled and cubed

Salt and ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6

Place a baking tray in the oven to heat

Heat the oil in a large saucepan

Add the onion and cook gently for a few minutes until beginning to soften

Add garlic and minced beef and cook for a further 5 minutes until the meat is browned all over

Stir in flour toss with the beef and cook for a couple of minutes

Add beef stock, tomato purée, HP sauce and cubed potatoes and simmer gently for 10 minutes until slightly thickened.

Season well to taste and leave to cool

Roll out half the pastry and use to line a roasting tin or dish measuring 35 X 25 cms

Spoon the cooled filling mixture on to the pastry

Roll out remaining pastry and place on top, pressing the edges together to seal

Crimp the edges using your fingertips and brush the top with a little milk to glaze

Place on baking tray and bake for 35-40 minutes until golden

Wine thoughts

The Rhône river carves its way south from Lyons, through Van Gogh’s countryside around Arles, finally exiting into the Mediterranean. In red wine terms, the northern part of the valley offers Hermitage, St Joseph, Côte Rôtie and Crozes-Hermitage, all crafted from the Syrah grape and providing an often austere ideal. In the south, vineyards are more widespread and their wines more exuberant and affordable. Châteauneuf-du-Pape heads up the well-known stable here, but my choice is a more restrained Côtes-du-Rhône villages from famed winemaker Guigal. Their wines feature the eminently approachable and pie-friendly Grenache grape, with some indispensable structure provided by Mourvèdre and Syrah.