15 October 2010

If you’ve been to a festival in the last couple of years then there’s a fair chance that you have encountered the awesome majesty that is Pieminister, who spend the summer months sending their mobile stall up and down the country to cheer up thousands of famished and hungover festival goers with wholesome, delicious pie, mash and gravy.

It was funny though that at Camp Bestival we mostly ate at Pieminister or the Thali Cafe, both of which are stalwarts in the Bristol food scene. We might as well have stayed at home! I feel no shame though as I think that outside London, Bristol has one of the best and most thriving foodie scenes in the country with a rightly famous farmer’s market in the centre of the city and a great array of cafes and restaurants that cater to pretty much every taste.

I always think that we are especially fortunate to have Pieminister here though – people elsewhere in the country have the option of ordering a box of twelve pies from their website but that’s a bit of a pricey way to get a hit of pie goodness, although still considerably less than a ticket to Glastonbury. Here though we have two very fine Pieminister shops as well as spots in local markets where we can give in to our need for pastry cased goodness.

I was lucky enough to visit Pieminister HQ yesterday to meet one of the co-founders, the very charming Jon Simon who was happy to talk about his company, of which he is rightly extremely proud but also food culture in general. It was a fascinating chat.

Pieminister itself was founded in Bristol in 2003 but quickly found a spot in London’s Borough Market before working on spreading the word via their now well known festival spots. At the time that they started out, Jon and his co-founder Tristan were disappointed about the fate of the Great British pie and I think that it is definitely partially down to them that pies have had quite a bit of a resurgence in recent years to become much more interesting and wholesome than the vile sloppy items that can still be found in the bewildering synthetic light of service stations.

As a vegetarian, I thanked Jon for Pieminister’s clear interest in catering in an interesting way for non meat eating fans and for their attention to detail. He admitted that at the outset they weren’t sure that vegetarians would actually be interested in their wares but were clearly swiftly disabused of that notion as if there is one thing we vegetarians like, it is pie. Unless it is made with lard of course.

The luscious goats cheese and sweet potato Heidi pie is a permanent feature on the menu and I can’t, to be honest, imagine the meat pies being nicer. However, yesterday I sampled the vegetarian special pie, a Mexican bean one, telling myself that it was in honour of the Chilean Miners (hurray!). I know, I know that Chile and Mexico aren’t the same thing at all and I’m betraying an almost imperialistic ignorance about foreign countries here, but it was the best I could do.

But oh that Mexican pie. Demolished, it was. So delicious and scrummy with just the right amount of give in the pastry, a perfect hit of chilli and a careful balance of chunky butternut squash and coriander. If you ever get a chance to go to a Pieminister shop and eat on the premises then you really must as the mashed potato is perfection and they are justifiably proud of their (vegetarian!) gravy. Also recommended is going for the extras of a scoop of dried onion and some grated cheese on top. Delicious.

The Mexican Mean Bean pie is a seasonal offering, but luckily for me Pieminister have just introduced a range of mini pies, which were destined for children but work just as well for bigger appetites too! Anyway, they come in three varieties, including Mini Amigo, which is the same as the Mean Bean, only smaller. Excellent!

Now, I am quite a big fan of mushrooms but often feel like I am very much in the minority. They are one of the banes of the average vegetarian’s life though as funnily enough a lot of us don’t like them either! It was interesting to hear that at Pieminister’s pie tastings, mushroom pies tend to be amongst the most umpopular so I asked what other ingredients haven’t worked out as well as planned.

Peanuts, was the reply. Apparently they tried them in a Thai curry type pie and they were really quite horrible so if any of you are thinking of making a Thai Pie (I’m a poet and etc), the Pieminister advice is to leave peanuts out of the equation.

Fish pies are also awkward to work with, which Jon, who is a fan of seafood, seemed really regretful about. I don’t eat fish but think that a one off Pieminister reinterpretation of that Cornish classic, the Star Gazey would be pretty awesome. From an aesthetic point of view, of course.

We had quite a long chat about the changing face of food culture, for want of a better term, in England over the last few decades and where Pieminister and its ilk fit into that. There is a tendency to mock the rather pretentious food of the eighties and the fads for foreign delicacies like ciabatta, quesadillas, goats cheese and gastro pubs but I think it’s rather ace that we as a nation are so adventurous and not adverse from borrowing from other culinary traditions.

Of course, nowadays there seems to be a decided and welcome move in the opposite direction with the slow food movement and so on and a heightened interest in getting back to basics and appreciating a rougher, more traditional and artisan sort of food, which I think that the success of Pieminister fits into perfectly. There is a definite preference for the home made these days and the more lop sided and misshapen our food is, the better we seem to like it.

Pieminister really pride themselves on using local produce in their pies, including cider, as befits a company based in Bristol! Dave tried their Mr Porky Pie yesterday, which has West Country pork, smoked bacon, shallots, apples, leeks, sage and Somerset cider and pronounced it ‘very good’ in a reverent manner.

Jon and I also chatted about a few news articles that I have read recently about food bartering, which has started to become more common in some places. Basically, some pub and restaurant owners are encouraging customers to bring in produce from their gardens and allotments in exchange for either a pint or something from the menu. It works out really nicely for both parties with the owners being able to work with very fresh, organic produce and the growers getting something delicious for their labours! What an excellent idea!

Although Pieminister buy their ingredients in from local growers, they actually do maintain a large allotment for the benefit of the people who work for them, which is really cool, I thought. Jon told me that they had a big summer barbecue a few weeks ago where they cooked their own produce and it sounded wonderful.

So is there a Pieminister near you? Check out their website for a list of restaurants and stockists. My vote is for the vegeterian pies obviously but their meat offerings are very special too. The restaurants are really great, if you can get to one. The Stokes Croft one is their flagship and has a lovely welcoming feel, with an array of wonderful foods on display (not just pies, but also sausage rolls and slabs of caramel slices and flapjacks NOT cupcakes), tile topped tables and food served on lovely enamelled metal plates. I don’t know about you, but I seriously LOVE enamel plates and swear that everything tastes better on them!

While we were there, tucking into our pies and mash, the restaurant started to fill up with customers, all cheerfully queuing up and bantering and chatting to each other about which pie they were planning to have that day while the air filled with the happy clatter of fork against enamel. It was really lovely.

Many thanks to Jon and Romany of Pieminister for meeting up with me and for being so lovely and helpful and, of course, for the pies!

I think I have written ‘pie’ so often in this post that the word has now ceased to have any meaning.

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