No fidget-ing at the back; or the Huntingdon (fitchett) Pie

So, why am I writing about a humble pie you may ask? Answer: for any number of good reasons (foremost of which of course is: “it’s a PIE, stupid, what’s not to like?”) but really there are two main ones:

  1. It’s a great traditional dish made with pork & apple that’s been produced in and around Huntingdon and dates back hundreds of years &
  2. It used to be made with bacon taken from the Huntingdon Black Hog, now sadly extinct. A local pig, dear to my heart, especially as it was so similar to my beloved Berkshires.

It’s such an important specimen (the pie that is, obviously; sadly the pig isn’t with us anymore) of the history of the food in this country, that the very wonderful Slow Food UK movement have added it to their Ark of Taste programme as a prime example of one of now nearly 100 or so English products, felt to be under threat of either disappearing completely or being changed beyond recognition (i.e. read “cheapened”).

The Berkshire (along with the British Lop, Gloucester Old Spot, Tamworth and other rare pig breeds) is also in there, right next to our regional cheeses, ancient fruits, endangered sheep and traditional fish, all coming under a heading we could and should call “best of British“.  Do you see a theme emerging here?

So, back to the Fidget (“fitchett” is an alternative spelling, as one suggestion for the derivation of the name is that it was originally ‘fitched’ or five-sided in shape; however, reading Stefan’s Florilegium also suggests the origin could indeed be fitchett, a slang word for ‘apple’), whilst local Cambs. food historian Alison Sloan said:

“One of the most popular theories is that it was named because the ingredients move around, or fidget, while it is cooking, but there are almost half a dozen other ideas.”

However you choose to pronounce this beauty, with pork and apples cooked inside a golden-brown short crust pie, what’s not to like about it? And along with onions and cider, that’s the basis for this deceptively simple dish.

[NOTE: some recipes also throw in potato — but that’s some horrible aberration ‘straight outta Shropshire’, so will be ignored here and henceforth by all right thinking people].

Sloan went on to say:

“We were quite late in using potatoes as our staple food in Cambridgeshire, and relied a lot on wheat and pastry. Therefore, pies were very popular – especially as there were a lot of apple orchards. Another local favourite was eel pie. People would not have eaten a lot of meat, so fish was very important. Eels would have been caught in the ditches around the Fens, along with herring.”

Back in 2007, a Grauniad journalist ¹ tried to find a Huntingdon Fidget Pie he could sample whilst on a family visit to the town; with a singular lack of success. Things haven’t improved any in the 10 years since then. Still no one is offering them in the town. Not one place.

These majestic pies — that were once produced here and all over the Midlands and described memorably as “meals on wheels for working men” ¹ — are the hyper-local equivalent of (amongst others) the bulging Cornish pasty…

…or those packed hot pies coming from Lancashire…

..but unlike these other two, you’re hard pressed to find them being made anywhere now, even (especially!) in their home-town — and that’s a crying shame.

So, to redress this balance I intend making these regularly. And with Berkshire bacon as I can’t get the pork from a genuine Huntingdon Hog. There are a number of recipes floating around the web now but this is the one I’m slowly fine-tuning. This will probably serve four (small) people. Although I’m not sure that’s the correct numbers — “your mileage may vary” — so you may want to scale up the numbers below …

The loud — and increasingly self-parodying — Gordon Ramsay’s recipe is pretty much word for word, exactly the same as mine, so I’m not linking to it. I’m not saying “disgusting, typical bullying plagiarism” here. Not exactly, but…

The Hairy Bikers (for whom I have a warm place in my heart, alongside the Two Fat Ladies & Keith Floyd), unfortunately use potato, so in this instance, their recipe in turn is sent back to the depths of Hades. Although I may try their use of a small touch of nutmeg at some point.

No, THIS one is canonical. Art least for the moment.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 100 g (4 oz) unsalted butter, cubed
  • 250 g (9 oz) plain strong flour
  • 1tsp fresh thyme
  • 1tsp brown sugar
  • salt and milled pepper
  • 225 g (8 oz) back bacon, rind off, roughly chopped
  • 1 medium onion, skinned and roughly chopped
  • 225 g (8 oz) mixed cooking & eating apples, peeled, cored, roughly chopped
  • 15 ml (1 tbsp) chopped fresh parsley
  • 150 ml (1/4 pint) dry cider
  • 1tsp corn flour
  • 1 large egg yolk, beaten, for the glaze.

PREPARATION:

  • We’ll start off with the pastry:  sift 225 g (8 oz) of the flour and a pinch of salt into a bowl and add the thyme. Rub the butter in gently, until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs, then add just sufficient cold water to mix to take it to a firm dough. Ball up the dough, knead lightly then cover the bowl in clingfilm and put it in the fridge for 30 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, cook off the bacon and onions in a little pork fat until the former starts to crisp and the latter to go translucent. Combine the two, tossing in the corn-flour. In the pan juices left finally brown off the apples and then decant all three items into a 568 ml (1 pint) pie dish. Add the parsley & brown sugar and season to taste with salt & ground pepper.
  • Take the remaining flour and slowly add the cider, a little at a time, until it’s a runny paste; pour this into the pie dish.
  • Roll out the pastry until it’s approx. the depth of a £1 coin. Cut off a thin strip long enough to go around the rim of the pie dish. Moisten the dish rim with water and place this strip onto the rim, pressing down lightly all the way round.
  • Roll out the pastry again until it’s a circle approx. 1/2″ wider than the dish diameter
  • Now moisten the strip of pastry, place the pastry circle on top and press firmly to seal. Knock up and flute the edge using a fork.
  • Make a diagonal cross in the centre almost to the very edge of the dish and fold the pastry back to reveal the filling. Chill it all in the fridge again for 30 minutes.
  • Take out and brush the pastry all over with the egg. Bake at 190ºC (375°F) gas Mark 5, for about 45 minutes or until the pastry is deep golden and the filling is cooked.

And this is the result. Well, one of them. In this version from today, I’ve used diced pork loin rather than bacon, to ring the changes and experiment. Hey, no carping criticisms eh? My town, my recipe(s), MY frickin’ pie.

It’s perfect straight from the oven along with a green vegetable — I’d suggest a purple sprouting broccoli or some curly kale or you can let it chill and then match it with a salad & a sharp pickle.

† interestingly, there’s a Fitchett mentioned in connection with the eponymous town of Huntingdon, VA. Nothing to do with pigs or pies but still, one of those nuggets of useless information (in this case about Cherrystone oysters),  that you’ll thank me for one day. You’r …

Doran S. Callahan Collection, Eastern Shore Public Library Accomac, Va. 1900

References:

  1. Fort, Matthew. “Start fidgeting”. The Guardian, 17 November 2007

About Salute The Pig

Charcuterie, smoking, curing, brining and all things porcine. Brought to you from deepest, darkest Cambs, England by Chris Bulow. In the smoker or in the kitchen….

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