By Sarah Inglis
If one word could describe Scotland, hearty might come to mind. From the cheerful people to its robust whiskey and satiating meat pies, Scotland has always been a land strong of heart and appetite.
Despite the efforts of today’s artistic chefs to refine the meat pie for modern tastes, the classic steak and ale version outranks in popularity throughout Scotland. Though it too has undergone an evolution, borne from a long history of meat pies that trace all the way back to Ancient Egypt.
The Origins Of Meat Pie
Formed from ground grains and water, the first pie shells functioned to house, preserve and transport the cooked meats. Thick and hard, the crust was almost inedible, made to withstand long periods over hot fires and extended storage times. As centuries passed, evidence suggests that the Greeks, Romans and Middle Eastern regions added oils to their pie shells, inventing a more digestible pastry. Cheese, nuts, fish or the meat of various birds were used as fillings. As the pie made its way into medieval Europe, animal fats such as lard, butter and suet were substituted for the oil. This allowed for a stronger, flakier shell and led to the eventual development of the puff pastry.
In Northern Europe, the “umble pie” stuffed with whatever animal innards the lower classes could afford was a sixteenth century staple. Then, in the seventeenth century, England became the premier inventor of specialty pie fillings. Pork was plentiful and often combined with fruit and spices. This evolved into mincemeat pies comprised of dried fruits, chopped nuts, meats, and sugar. Suet was substituted when meat was scarce. Around the eighteenth century as potatoes became more widely accepted in England, cottage pie was introduced, along with steak and kidney pudding and beef with oyster pie. The latter two morphed into the much-loved modern-day steak and ale pie adopted by the Scots.
Traveling In Scotland
Scotch pie, tall-crusted and filled with mutton, is the only known pie believed to be invented in Scotland. Considered more of an every day workingman’s lunch, these pies are small and eaten by hand. But, on holidays such Christmas and Hogmanay (Scotland’s New Year), forget the roast or the ham. Most Scots prefer a fresh steak and ale pie made to order from the local butcher.
For those traveling to Scotland, a decent steak and ale pie can be found at nearly every pub in the country year-round. The beef is slow-cooked in a rich gravy until it falls apart. Caramelized onions, leeks, celery and carrots are added along with a bouquet of herbs. Then puff pastry is piled high over the filling and baked until golden and buttery. A side of mash and peas or chips and vinegar are typical accompaniments. This melt-in-your-mouth dish is a wonderful treat for any visitor. But get to the pub early! By 7-8pm, many establishments either stop serving or run out of food for the evening.
Where To Find The Best Steak & Ale Pie
1. Cuan Mor, 60 George Street, Oban
In the coastal town of Oban, pair your steak pie with a selection of Oban Bay ales brewed on-site at Cuan Mor. Located right on the main drag with views of the bay, this is a large but cozy pub covered in wood beams and adorned with steel fixtures. The extensive menu includes crowd favorites such as fish and chips and burgers, as well as great seafood dishes.
2. No 2 Baker Street, 2 Baker Street, Stirling
No 2 Baker Street is located in the heart of Stirling with a classic pub atmosphere, an exceptionally friendly staff and one of the best steak and ale pies around. The selection of ales rotates every couple of days. Specials are available Sunday-Thursday and live music acts are scheduled each week. This is a great place for a late dinner.
3. The Cold Beer Company, 84 Murray Pl, Stirling
Situated in an old postal office, this is a spacious, comfortable pub to watch sports while enjoying a meal. The steak and ale pie here is quite good though they stop serving a bit early.
4. Rose & Crown, 170 Rose St, Edinburgh / Dirty Dick’s, 159 Rose St, Edinburgh
There are many pubs to choose from up and down Rose Street including The Black Cat and The Shoogly Peg. Most offer outdoor seating in the warmer months. Rose & Crown has all around great food. The steak and ale pie is one of my favorites in the area, along with the mac & cheese and the Brie Salad. This is one of those spots that does run out of food around 7pm. But no worries – if you’re hungry just head on down to Dirty Dick’s for quirky ambiance, a bit of humor and a fried mars bar. Their meat pies change daily though the steak and ale is often included in the rotation.
5. The Royal McGregor, 154 High Street, Edinburgh
Along the Royal Mile, escape the crowds and load up with generous portions and fair prices. There are a few unique dishes on the menu here, such as the Vegetarian Haggis Tower and the Crofters Chicken. No complaints about the steak and ale pie, especially when followed by a delicious cream and berry dessert called Crannachan.
Steak & Ale Pie Recipe
- 2 pounds diced eye round or stewing beef
- 1/2 cup flour
- Salt and pepper
- 3 tablespoons olive oil or butter
- Handful dried mushrooms
- 3 large carrots, halved and diced
- 1 small onion, peeled and chopped
- 2 celery stalks, chopped
- 1 leek, chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 cups dark ale
- 2 cups beef broth
- 2 tablespoons brown seasoning sauce or Worcestershire
- 1 package puff pastry
- 1 large egg
In a large bowl, toss the diced beef, flour, salt and pepper until evenly coated.
Heat the oil in a sauté pan over medium high and brown the beef until golden. Transfer to a crock pot.
Using a blender, puree the dried mushrooms into a fine powder and pour over the beef.
Add the carrots, onion, celery, leeks, bay leaf and thyme.
Pour in the ale and broth.
If using, add the brown seasoning or Worcestershire sauce.
Cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours or on high for 3-4 hours, until the beef is fork tender. Add more salt and pepper, if needed.
Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Discard the bay leaf. Transfer the contents of the crock pot to a casserole dish.
Cut the puff pastry to fit the casserole dish and place on top of the filling.
Whisk the egg with a tablespoon of water and lightly brush onto the pastry until evenly coated.
Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the pastry is golden and puffed.
About Sarah Inglis
Sarah Inglis is an increasingly vegetarian non-vegetarian, as well as a certified fitness trainer, personal chef, freelance writer and food photographer with degrees in media communications and dietetics. Raised on a mini-farm, she was taught to appreciate ethical farm-to-table living long before it became a trend. For a collection of healthy recipes, travel stories, fitness & nutritional information, visit her blog.
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