There are many reasons why I will not entertain becoming a vegetarian. Steak and ale pie is one of them.

My concern for animals extends beyond owning and loving our over-sensitive collie/lab cross.  Like many who enjoy food, my consumer conscience pushes me to find out about the origins of what I eat and how well animals are treated before I will make a purchase.  The best way of doing this is to get to know your butcher, which may seem like an alien concept if you’ve spent the last decade putting sealed plastic trays of chopped meat into your trolley.

In truth, the household budget has more impact on our attitudes towards food than perhaps we’d like to admit.  In my student days, the last thing on my mind was the welfare of livestock in our county when looking for the main ingredient in the curry I’d promised to cook for my flatmates.  Was the meat I bought even from this county?  From this country?  Who knew?  One person who does know is your local butcher, which brings us back to the issue of shopping close to home and supporting independent businesses.  The supermarkets are winning.

However, well-sourced, good quality meat that you know has come from animals treated properly, is not the reserve of the affluent members of each community.  By simply speaking to your butcher and telling them what you are going to cook, you’ll find which are the most suitable cuts and what offers value for money.  Good cooking starts with good shopping.

Of course, many among you will shake your heads knowingly and state that vegetarianism offers a wonderful diet with fewer pitfalls in sourcing.  However, I know deep down that I will always eat meat and that even the most insightful arguments against it cannot compete with steak and ale pie.

Steak and ale pie

800g stewing steak (cut into chunks)

500g Robinson’s Unicorn ale

500g puff pastry

4 large carrots (sliced)

8 mushrooms (sliced thickly)

1 onion (sliced)

4 cloves garlic (sliced)

4 tspoons Dijon mustard

2 beef stock cubes

half tspoon cayenne pepper

butter

sea salt

black pepper

plain flour

1 egg

I made this recipe using Robinson’s Unicorn, but any quality ale will do.  You could even try it with good, old Guinness.  I’m sure it would work a treat.  I drank Unicorn beer on my stag do in the Lake District and it’s a cracking pint!  I washed this pie down with a bottle of Hobgoblin and I can recommend that too.

First of all, heat a nob of butter in a heavy pan and brown the beef.  I sprinkled in some plain flour to coat the beef as it was cooking and I ground lots of black pepper in too.  No salt at this stage.

When the beef was brown, I added the onions and garlic and put the lid on to help soften them.  This only took a couple of minutes and with some stirring, the onions were cooked through.  I threw in the carrots and poured in 250ml of beer before stirring in the mustard.  Make sure everything is well combined, add more black pepper (if you love it like I do) and the stock cubes and let it simmer for about fifteen minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small frying pan, fry the mushrooms in some butter and then add them to the beef.  Sprinkle in the cayenne pepper.  Pour in the rest of the beer.  Stir.

Pop a tight lid on the beef and put it into the oven at 170C for about two hours.  Stir it every now and again and season to taste with the sea salt.

To top the pie, roll out the pastry and tip your pie dish onto it.  Cut around the pie dish carefully leaving a few centimetres more than needed around the edges.  The pastry will shrink in the oven.  When the beef is cooked and the gravy is nice and thick, tip it all into the pie dish and cover with the pastry.  Beat the egg and use a brush to coat the pastry.  This will give your pie a nice glaze.

Put the pie into the oven for as long as it takes for the pastry to puff up and turn golden.  Serve it with vegetables and your favourite beer.  Next time, I think I’ll serve it with the same ale that went into making it…and some mashed potato.  Lots of buttery mashed potato.  Winter fare doesn’t get any better than that.

I will raise you as my own.

The English have big love for pies.  Sweet or savoury, pies are well represented on English plates.  I’ve made fruit pies sprinkled with sugar and I’ve made pies filled with meat and gravy, but I’ve never attempted a pork pie.  The classic buffet and picnic pie of choice for the English has always been something of a mystery to me.  Probably made by wisened old artisans whose knowledge of pie-making has been inherited and protected with the kind of secrecy alluded to in low-brow Templar fiction.  Or are they mass-produced vehicles for the less palatable parts of a pig?  It was time to learn something new and in the process, perhaps make something special.

First of all, what’s the appeal of a good pork pie?  The pastry is special.  A golden brown with an attractive glaze and a crumbly promise of savoury comfort.  Okay, too poetic, but pork pies are made with a hot water crust that contains lard.  This makes it tasty and gives it a wonderful texture upon baking.  The pastry is pressed against the sides of whatever it is baked in to form walls.  The walls get higher until they are ready to be filled.  Raising the pastry in this way produces what is known as a hand-raised pie.

Secondly, pork pies are good when they’re hot and even better when they’re cold.  Pickles, chutneys and relishes are fantastic with pork pies and the fact that their contents doesn’t ooze out makes them a perfect travel companion.

I looked at a few online recipes for the pastry before I attempted to make it.  In the end, I chose to use Delia Smith’s recipe for the pastry.  The contents of the pie, however, were a very successful little experiment and as I type, I’m finding it very difficult to contain my pride.  If you want a treat, go and buy a Melton Mowbray pork pie.  If you want to experience the joy of creating something tasty and beautiful (in the most rustic of ways), then it’s about time you made your very own hand-raised pork pie.

Hand-raised sausage & bacon pies

(Pastry adapted from Delia Smith)

225g strong white flour

75g lard

25ml milk

pinch of salt

black pepper

1 egg yolk (to glaze)

(For the filling)

275g sausage meat

6 slices smoked bacon

150g smoked ham

1 tspoon fish sauce

half tspoon ground allspice

half tspoon ground mace

black pepper

pinch of salt

It’s best to make the filling first so that you can work quickly with the pastry before it dries out.

I fried the bacon until crispy and then mixed it with the rest of the ingredients until well combined.  If you want to check the seasoning, you can fry a little of the filling and taste it once cooked.

As in Delia’s recipe for the pastry, begin by heating the milk and lard in a pan.  Add 25ml of water and bring everything just to the boil.  Pour it into a bowl containing the flour and use a wooden spoon to combine everything.

Now it’s time to build up the pastry crust ready to be filled.  I used little stainless steel pudding moulds.  I pressed a little ball of pastry into the base and began adding more pastry and forming the sides of the pie.  When I got to the top, I overlapped the edges and filled the pies with the filling, making sure that I pressed down firmly using the back of a spoon.  Once level, I folded the edges of the pastry in and made a little hole for steam to escape through during baking.

I used the beaten egg yolk to glaze the top of each pie before sliding them into the oven at 180C for half an hour.  I then carefully removed the pies from the molds, glazed the sides with more yolk and put them back on a baking tray to finish in the oven for another twenty-five minutes.  This made the crust golden and firm.

The pie filling looks quite pink in the photographs, but this is just the bacon.  I can assure you that the pies were firm and fully cooked through.  Their spicing was just right and the crumbly pastry was delicious.  I ate mine with lots of Branston pickle.  One thing’s for sure, I’ll be making these at Christmas and serving them with lots of chutney, cheese and some strong red wine.  Then in the spring, they’ll be coming with me to the beach and the park for some picnic action.  All in all, I’m glad I tried my hand at making these.  You will be too!