Oh heavens … the title of the Weekly Writing Challenge is ‘Pie’. Maybe I’ll give it a miss this week. But I started taking part in this for discipline. And that was only last week. I can’t opt out. I am made of a sterner crust than that.
Pie. I love pie actually – my preference is for a shortcrust top and bottom because it is the pastry as well as what it encases that I love. It’s also possible that I find it less risky. My dear French friend Isobelle pointed out recently I eat ‘comme un cochon’. She was not being unkind just referring to the random scattering of crumbs circling the space where my plate had been as she tidied her table. I can wear it and indeed I often do. I am messy and, flaky or puff, whether rough or not, is more likely to break free and land in my hair giving some comedy value but at odds with my quest for elegance and allure. Honestly, I wish the hairnet would have a fashion revival … my hair is a monstrous liability and seems fatally attracted to food. When making or baking I invariably cast at least one – my daughters long ago ceased to be alarmed and would point out to friends that it is simply a sign that mummy really did make it when a long black thread appeared in their soup or stew or indeed pie.
These days I am fond of Pi too. I am wed to my Two Brained love and he has taught me to be unafraid of mathematics and that it can be rather lovely and quite useful too. He has me convinced that there is a latent scientist lurking within … whether the world is ready for my ability to understand and explain theorem through domestic appliances is debatable, but I am pleased and I know my Nuclear Physicist late father is smiling down content that finally his daughter has been made to realise what he always asserted – that as far as maths and science go, she can if she will.
Living here in France has it’s challenges but food is almost never one of them. However, when we are invited for a meal, and as is customary, take a plate of something with us, or when we entertain at home, we use the opportunity to educate our Gaelic friends that not everything the British produce to eat is inedible. In fact the British are really rather brilliant at British cuisine. We have had a few successes but none so great as the pasty.
Invited to the home of local friends in the summer we decided to make pasties. Little tiny ones as nibbly bits rather than hobnailed booted mains. Some meat and some vegetarian since the hostess does not partake of the flesh of fish, fowl or furry creatures. Hold that thought. Working as a team, we produced the prettiest little pasties ever. I made the pastry and it was a triumph. The fillings – one of beef, potatoes carrots, turnip (which is treated much more much respectfully in France than the UK), and a little thyme and the other of potatoes, leeks, carrots and some red pepper for sweetness, seasoned with parsley so as not to overwhelm. They smelled divine and Two Brains (whose alternative career choice was to be a surgeon) made them so neatly into little crescents that they were almost too pretty to eat.
We arrived, we sat in the garden and the plate of fragrant pastries was duly put out as an appetizer. We explained the history – that these would normally have been made much larger and were the staple of Cornish tin miners often containing savoury meaty at one end and sweet probably appley at the other – the ultimate portable lunch. Slowly each of our friends lifted their morcel, eyed it with the suspicion that a cow in the field eyes a dog walking past and took the tiniest nibble. Then, satisfied that this was actually edible even by their own haute patisserie standards they bit a proper mouthfilling bite and munched away. ‘What is the pastry?’ Christiane next to me demanded to know – ‘it is delicious and so short, tell me – what is your secret?’ Puffed with pride I told her that it is simply wheat flour, ice cold water and duck fat. As the words left my lips and sailed across the table, the words ‘gras de canard’, I remembered the relevance of the warning ‘pride comes before a fall’. I looked across at our hostess, tucking into her third safe vegetarian pie and swallowed hard. Christiane gave me a conspiratorial wink, I reminded myself that our hostess has occassionally been known to sneak a little light charcuterie and I think I got away with it. But I will wear the guilt like a hair shirt for many moons to come.
I said I like all pies and I do. I like the birds too. The magpies of the rhyme, and I am deeply supersticious of them – I salute, I wave, I say good morning and I tell them where I am going. I draw the line at spitting but I think I have the bases covered. Particularly if I only see one. Before we moved here we were driving with the husband of the aforementioned pastry quizzer and with the most stilted French, I asked conversationally (he being an expert on the flora and fauna of the area) ‘So then, what will one call the bird of black and white feathers?’ ‘Le pee’ he replied. ‘Ah then, this will be parallel to my English – we speak the pie’ I confidently retorted. ‘Non. Le pee’ he insisted. My French was deplorable but he has absolutely no English …. the fact that the word is pronounced differently makes it a completely different word to him. For a moment I felt quite bi-lingual. Which I am not. But I’m certainly pie-lingual.
PS: It interests me that in a culture where food reigns supreme the French word for pastry is identical to that for pasta or any other dough. Pate. Not to be muddled with paté which would really make a mess of things. And further, if you were wondering why the title – it comes from an English nursery rhyme about Magpies and refers to the fact that according to myth the number of magpies you see are supposed to determine your luck for the day:
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told