A good mince pie

Mince pie
The humble British mince pie

I have fallen in love with the common British mince pie.

“Pie” in the UK is not like pie in the States. Pie here is generally savory, filled with gravy, meat, vegetables, similar to an American pot-pie filling. The crust, or “pastry” as it’s called, is a thick, tough container for said gravy and filling. The fillings are diverse and quite delicious; the crust is generally not eaten in its entirety. Such British pies are ubiquitous at your average pub in London.

Back in the day, mincemeat pies were a type of these modern British pies, but they were originally filled with ground meat that had spoiled and was subsequently mixed with dried fruit and tons of spices to make the rancidity palatable. Fast-forward to the discovery of sugar and better food safety, the mincemeat pie became all spices, fruit, nuts, but often kept a small nod to its origin by including a bit of suet (beef or sheep fat). To make this all more appealing to us today while shopping at Tesco, the “meat” part is often dropped from the description, resulting in simply “mince pies” and the suet is commonly swapped out in favor of vegetable shortening.

So what we have today is the modern mince pie: filled with sugar, dried fruit, chopped nuts, tons of delicious spices, and a generous amount of brandy. When described like this, it sounds delicious and I’m sure would be huge hit in the States, maybe even one day supplanting the boring bland pumpkin pie as the traditional holiday dessert. We’d probably have to rename it to something like “Holiday spiced fruit pie” though…

Without fail, when I bring up the subject of mince pies either in the professional kitchen or while out with friends, the first response is always, “Don’t you have these at home?” And no, of course we don’t have these in the States. Mincemeat isn’t something that is appealing to the average American, mostly because the name is weird, but also because culturally, the genesis of the mincemeat pie happened well before the coalescence of our culture. Kinda like the fruit cake. Crazy popular here, but a total white elephant gift back home.

The second response is a confusing “Ugh, mince pies”. But I don’t get it. How could you not love these little things? Everyone I talk to who grew up in the UK has really fond memories of mince pies, but almost without exception they don’t like them now as adults. Too much exposure, maybe? Or kinda like the American pumpkin pie, just too common and inescapable? (Side note: The pumpkin pies I’ve made here for cooking classes and friends have been off-the-charts popoular. Maybe the US and the UK should shake things up for a while and trade traditional desserts. We all should get excited about the winter season’s sweets!)

While working at L* this Christmas season, I’ve been making hundreds of these little pies (practically always done as mini pies, about 2″ across). We’re talking 350 pies a day, about 2-3 times a week. That’s a lot of pie. The recipe that L* uses is a bit of an anomoly, though, as I learned recently when I was hired by M* to also make MORE PIES. At M*, they bought commercially made mince filling. Kind of a sin, to my professional mind, but I’m learning that’s actually pretty common here in the UK to buy commercially made products.

At L*, they make the mince filling from scratch. And they made huge amount. I recently estimated that at the beginning of November, we had at least 300 pounds of it in the fridge. The recipe that L* uses, I was told, is a version of the National Trust‘s version (the same organization that manages Stonehenge, kinda like the US Parks Dept mixed with the Smithsonian). I believe the recipe can be found in “National Trust Complete Jams, Preserves and Chutneys” by Sara Paston-Williams.

But as many pies as I’ve made so far this season (I estimate at least 2000) I’m still not over them. I plan on trying the National Trust recipe at home and making more mince pies for myself. I might be turning a little British, because I really think these pies are absolutely killer with a spot of tea.

Petergailis – 5 out of 5 stars

Read my disclaimer about restaurant reviews.

Petergailis

Address:
Petergailis
Skarnu iela 25
Riga, Latvia, LV-1050
www.petergailis.com
67212888

Date: Dinner on November 26, 2016

The Good: Delicious, warm and inviting, elegant, affordable

The Bad: A TV was afixed to the wall, tuned to a sports station as if it were a cheap British pub. Which this place is most certainly not!

Petergailis

My menu:
Latvian sparkling wine (who knew?!)
House red wine (Italian)
Rosti with cured salmon
Lamb shank with potato and celeriac puree
Espresso

What I paid: About the equivalent of $27 USD.

Value? For certain. The quality of the food and presentation was far beyond the price. The service was attentive without being oppressive. The overall atmosphere was modern without being stark.

Dine-again status: Probably, but I generally don’t like to repeat restaurants. I would highly recommend this place to any foodie friend of mine, though!

The Story:
Latvia is not France. When we’re traveling in France, every meal is a special event, one not to be wasted, worthy of much consideration. Latvia, on the other hand, is a place where we can be a little more casual with our dining selections. But I’m learning that I really like modern northern European cuisine, in restaurants like Farm in Tallin, or many places in Copenhagen (not Noma), and now I add Latvia to that list.

Petergailis was, for me, the perfect cross-paring of modern sophistication with hearty honest food. It’s the kind of food I would like to make. Approchable, but elegant. Perfectly executed and refined without being weird or “artistic”.

The dining room was small, maybe space for 50 covers, but it didn’t feel too crowded; just cozy enough while also evoking that intrinsic northern European sense of modern style. Stark but hygge at the same time. Only draw back was that TV tuned to Sky Sports, or whatever the local version is.

I didn’t order dessert; the options weren’t quite interesting enough, although I’m sure they would have been delicious. This is the kind of place that were I to move to Riga, I’d drop off my resume post-haste; I think being a pastry chef at a restaurant of this caliber would be very rewarding.

Where is the…

Recently (ok, it was today) I was shopping in my local Tesco for ingredients for an American-style Thanksgiving dinner. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but I was wildly frustrated by the lack of ingredients that I could find there; frustrated to the point I literally wanted to grab the nearest Britisher and yell at them, “What the fuck is all this instant chicken stock doing here? How can you live with such garbage food?! Where are all the graham crackers? Why the hell don’t you have celery?! Segregating American food into one section is racist!”

I ultimately found a very kind, friendly, and patient staff person to talk me off the ledge. He walked around the store with me on my quest, which in and of itself was really comforting; his customer service skills were quite American! Sadly, I didn’t end up finding what I needed, it is still England after all, but I did finally realize why I was having a problem in the first place.

I wasn’t living locally.

One thing you do as a chef is that you go to the local market, see what’s available, and buy the best of it to work with, then adjust your cooking plans accordingly. You don’t go to the farmer’s market in January expecting to be able to buy ingredients for strawberry shortcake.

Well, I violated the cultural version of this rule by expecting the shitty little Tesco around the corner from my flat to have full-on American-style choices and ingredients. Don’t misunderstand me, England absolutely has some fantastic ingredients, but it’s not anywhere near the selection I’m used to, being a Seattleite as I am.

To be fair, it also doesn’t help that I’m only 24 hours “off the boat” from my recent visit to the US.

So here we are again, and probably not for the last time, I forgot I’m living in a foreign country. The language is close enough, the culture is close enough, and the weather is close enough, but it’s still London and I’m not a native. To be successful here (and to prevent myself from yelling at strangers!), I need to adapt to what’s available and get past the fact that I think it’s shit to use powdered stock and that sourcing pumpkin puree is going to cost me an arm and a leg.

Next year, I resolve to leverage my classic American ingenuity: I’ll “Go Local” and attempt a British-style American Thanksgiving dinner, based on the best local available ingredients.

Waterloo Bar and Kitchen – The SRP

Waterloo Bar and Kitchen
131 Waterloo Road
London, SE1 8UR

Notes:
Ordered the roast chicken which I rarely do, because “pigs in a blanket” was listed as a component of the dish. It turned out to be less “pigs in a blanket” and more like some canabalistic bacon-wrapped mini sausage. It was delicious. The chicken itself was just the tiniest bit dry, but was more than made up for by the super-crunchy fried/roasted skin.

The bit of stuffing served was presented as a little block, much like bread pudding would be done, but it tasted exactly like classic American stuffing. The texture, however, was what you’d expect from a meat-substitute of some kind. Not bad, just a little different

The Yorkshire pudding actually had good flavor!

Also served were a few roasted parsnips: a little sweet, a little bitter, nicely roasted and caramelized… I missed these things!

Dessert was sticky toffee pudding, the best I’ve had, because it had spices and probably a little bit of salt.

The word you’re looking for is “sear”

When you’re an expat and greatly outnumbered by the local populace, you learn pretty quickly that you’re very often going to be “wrong” about a lot of stuff. You begin to cultivate the requisite survival skills in taking abuse, biting your tongue, and rolling your eyes at the importance locals place on pointing out how their way is right and, you, the foreigner (especially if you’re an American) are ignorant, devoid of culture, and education, and just basic civilization.

I’m finally coming to grips with this state of existence; They say “Acceptance” is Step 5 and eventually leads to a happier life.

One thing I won’t concede, however, are the fundamentals of cooking. Science is science, facts are facts, and certain things just are right:

Cooking protein at high heat in a dry environment does not “seal” it.

A perfectly SEARED steak
A perfectly SEARED steak

When I first encountered this word, “seal”, I thought it was a simple mispronunciation, like how the English will say “bruvver” instead of “brother” or “bu-uh” instead of “butter” or “Ameriker” instead of “America”. (As an aside, and to quote Henry Higgins, “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?”) Anyway, since my colleagues and I were discussing cooking techniques for steaks and other meats, I was able to discern their accent/mispronunciation to understand these cooks meant “sear”. And life moved on.

But after a while, as I kept encountering this word “seal”, I started thinking it wasn’t about mispronunciation at all, but instead a legitimate difference in vocabulary. Kind of like how I say “cilantro” and they say “cori-AN-duh”. A vocabulary difference is a little less adorable than an quirky accent and a bit more annoying as it leads to the inevitable “eggplant/aubergine” debate. But, still, it’s something I could translate in my head and move past.

However, just recently, I got curious and dug further into this “seal” word with a fellow chef, only to find out to my shock and horror (and a little bit of sick fascination) that in fact, yes, the whole professional population here in England seems to think this is the actual real thing going on when you cook meat!

Holy shit. It’s like it’s still 1970 here.

A lot of people who are way smarter than me have proved what happens when you cook meat in a dry environment at high heat. The short version is that the proteins caramelize creating a delicious crust on the surface; this is called the Maillard Reaction. (Here, here, here, and here)

Under no circumstances, at all, ever, is this process “sealing in the juices” which is what APPARENTLY the cooks here think it does. This sort of institutional ignorance boggles the mind. It’s as if the Internet doesn’t exist, no one does any professional research, and we’ll all still mere unthinking apprentices of Escoffier.

So I utter my battle cry once again: We don’t have to live like this anymore!!

A wise person once asked me about one of my opinions, metaphorically of course, “Is this the hill you’re willing to die for?” It got me to thinking that I really need to evaluate what issues I’ll concede in the interest of not wasting my own time and energy. To that end, outside the privacy of my own home, I’ve given up on “cilantro”, “eggplant”, “zucchini”, “plastic wrap”, “paper towels”, “garbage”… But scientifically proven cooking techniques, hell no, I’m not giving an inch on that. I will die on that hill.

Science is science and hard facts far outweigh your own personal or cultural beliefs. Is “seal” still a thing here because of the British adherence to tradition and fear of change? Is it perhaps because they don’t have the same books we Americans have access to? Is it because of the entrenched European (French) kitchen brigade system that doesn’t encourage intellectual curiosity?

Lest you think I exaggerate regarding the pervasiveness of this ignorance, even the Oxford Fucking English Dictionary gets it wrong.

Sharing techniques and spreading knowledge is a huge part of being a chef. What I have here is what’s called a “teachable moment”. Whenever possible/reasonable/appropriate I will share with my colleagues just exactly what it means to “sear” and lovingly teach them to stop thinking of it as “sealing in the juices”. I definitely anticipate great frustration and disappointment in my quest, but I’m looking forward to making my own small contribution to the modernization of cooking here in London.