One of the teatime (read: dinnertime) staples of my formative childhood years spent just outside of Edinburgh, Scotland, was the lowly mince pie and beans, and it’s a combination that I still find myself craving after all these decades.
The Scottish meat pie is a unique thing, with a history that goes back around five hundred years, its origins are no longer entirely clear. It’s made with a very specific type of “hot water crust pastry”, markedly different from the flaky pastry found in most other pies. This pastry is formed into a round with straight sides and the pastry lid of the pie is placed about a quarter of an inch below the top of the sides. Traditionally filled with sweeter (and back THEN, cheaper) mutton seasoned with a touch of mace and nutmeg, modern day fillings are more usually minced beef or lamb. Whatever happened to mutton BTW? I used to adore the stuff.
In doing some research I’m learning that they were the ultimate working class convenience food, as many used the space above the lid as a receptacle for the accompanying mashed potatoes, baked beans, brown sauce, gravy, or egg, so they could be utilised as a “hand pie” and be consumed single-handedly, a beverage in the other (usually Bovril/beer) as one were on one’s work break, at a football match, or being chased down Lothian Road by football casuals. I never once did that though, putting one’s accompaniment on top. Oh, the humanity! Way too messy for me.
It’s only been over the past two years I have been able to find a decent Canadian take on the humble “Scotch” pie that meets my personal preferences, and that would be the little (around 4 inches in diameter and f1.5 inches deep) frozen pies from Collingwood’s Blue Ridge Meats at $5 a pop. The pastry is spot-on and the meat (lean-ground beef) contained within is their usual top-notch stuff.
I’m sure I wasn’t always quite so discerning about the provenance of my pies, although my mum always certainly was, insisting that she would only ever buy them from Juniper Green’s “Scott the Butcher”. Quality meat from Scott the Butcher aside, I honestly physically shudder to think just what went into some of the pies I greedily consumed throughout my youth back in Scotland. Thinking back I remember much of the fillings being a decidedly unappetizing shade of grey and oft speckled with gristly lumps and ribbons of scraggy fat.
Perhaps there was some truth in the myth that it consisted of “baws*, paws, and claws “, as we used to joke. But at 3.30am, after the clubs had emptied out their, both literally and figuratively, steaming social detritus onto the pish-reeking cobbled wynds and closes of this Athens of the North, AKA Auld Reekie, the last thing on our minds was as to the baker’s secret recipe.
These hastily-consumed pastry parcels of molten fat burned many a hungry, drunken mouth over the years, and I wonder if today those clandestine all-night bakeries now insist that would-be pie eaters sign some kind of waiver before handing over their wares. I joke, of course, in fact I even wonder if such hidden spots even exist in today’s Edinburgh.
I never went to football matches, but apparently the pies one found there were particularly gruesome. I have read that at many matches, pies of questionable quality were often used as missiles to be hurled at opposing fans/teams, with evidence of this being found all over the grounds after the match ended.
But what would the pie be without the beans?
At home, pies never came alone but were always, without fail, accompanied by scalding-hot Heinz (accept nothing less!) baked beans.
The Heinz beans that one finds in Canada are a slightly different recipe to those from the UK (more sugar, I believe), but they’ll do in a pinch. I honestly thought it was the other way around until today, but I stand corrected.
As I heat up the beans in a saucepan this morning, the sweet aromatics from the orange-sauced haricot beans accompanied by the pastry shell crisping up in the oven, my mouth salivates in anticipation. I can close my eyes and I’m back in the late seventies/early eighties… I can see my mum and wee sister at the little green wooden dining table squeezed up beside the upright piano, all enjoying our “tea”. Happy memories.
We all loved our pie and beans, and I certainly still do to this day.
*Baws = Scottish slang for testicles.
As a child I spent weekends with my Grannie whose original home was the northeast of Scotland. She lived just beside the back alleyway at Danforth and Woodbine. We would put long coats over our nightgowns and slip down the alleyway at 6 a.m. for the first pies coming out of the oven at Wallace’s bakery. Heaven, even for breakfast.