‘An old fashioned romance that will warm the cockles of your heart’
A traditional fish pie is usually made with a mixture of smoked and un-smoked fish in a white velouté or béchamel sauce made using the milk the fish was poached in. Prawns, peas and hard-boiled eggs are common additional ingredients used. Topped with creamy mashed potato laced with cheese and/or leeks – these are the fundamentals required to do justice this classic dish.
In medieval Britain sweet fruity flavours were often incorporated with fish to form pies as varied as mackerel and gooseberry. In the English Housewife in 1649, Gervase Markham describes cod pie with pears and crystallised lemon peel. In Yorkshire, apples and potatoes were put into herring pies and Cornish folk liked a similar combination in a pastie.
The Cornish are also credited with the invention of stargazy pie. Pilchards or herrings were sandwiched whole, and often de-boned, in a single or double-crust pie with their little heads poking through the pastry. This dish underwent a brief revival during 1970’s and in more recent times with Mark Hix’s interpretation, of his winning dish on ‘The Great British Menu’
Stargazy pie originated in the Cornish town of Mousehole (pronounced “mowzel”) near Penzance on the Channel coast and is traditionally eaten at the festival of Tom Bawcock’s Eve on December 23. It is an egg and bacon pie made with pilchards and up to five other kinds of fish covered over with a pastry crust. The fish are inserted into the raw dough and then baked with their tails toward the middle of the pie while their heads poke upwards as if they were gazing at the stars.
The use of fish in our everyday cooking came into its own during the early modern era (c.1500’s) when the church had decreed meatless days. Cooks, chefs and housewives alike started to use fish more extensively finding ways to utilise fish as a speciality or part of a substantial main meal.
These early versions of the fish pie, by in large depended on where you lived and what produce was available. Shakespeare mentions the cockney fondness for eel pie in King Lear. There is even an island on the river Thames called ‘Eel Island’ which was named after this dish.
The Idea of using smoked and/or salted fish is said to be first used around the East coast of Scotland, where it was a cottage industry. It is said that the addition of mashed potato as a topping was a way to soften the salty flavours.
Since I can remember, the fish pie has been a firm favourite on the British dinner table, and has been enjoying a bit of a revival in recent years. With the dark, cold winter days in full swing and with British Pie Week just around the corner, I just can’t help feeling a fish pie dinner would be akin to having an old-fashioned romance that will warm the cockles of your heart.
I have been a great advocate of fish pie, and whilst working in a restaurant in Islington, I developed my own take on this classic recipe. Many hours of debate and research had taken place as to whether peas should be in it or served on the side, or are boiled eggs necessary? Some puritans argue that the addition of cheese in the mashed potato topping is a perversion. One manager I worked with even tried to convince me to decorate the top with sliced tomato!
This recipe is a real crowd pleaser as well as being a big hit with the kids come rain or shine. You can use whatever type of fish and/or shellfish you like, as well as being a great opportunity to experiment with new varieties. As long as it comes wrapped in a creamy, white savoury sauce underneath a light crust of fluffy mash you really can’t go wrong…as for the sliced tomato on top…I don’t think so.
Ingredients: Serves 4
For the béchamel sauce:
20g Plain flour
½ Onion studded with 3 cloves
1 Celery stick chopped roughly
Small bunch of parsley stalks
2 Bay leaves
Fish mix for the pie:
100g Cod (or any white fish of your choice) – chopped into large chunks
100g Salmon fillet – chopped into large chunks
100g Smoked Haddock – chopped into large chunks
Small bunch of dill leaves, chopped
Garnish for the fish pie mix:
3 Hard boiled eggs, peeled & chopped into large chunks
150g Baby leeks, sliced
For the topping:
1.3 Kg Maris piper/King Edward potato,(or any floury potato)
50ml double cream
2 – 3 egg yolks
Salt & white pepper to taste
1) Prick the potatoes with a fork, wrap in foil and bake in the oven for 45 – 60 mins, or until they are baked through. Cut the potatoes in half, and scoop them out into a bowl discarding the skins.
2) Pass the potatoes through a ricer to form the mash. Heat the double cream and beat into the mash followed by the butter and then incorporate the egg yolks. Season to taste. Set aside. (Ensure your mash is not too wet)
3) Infuse the milk by adding the aromatics (onion, cloves, celery, parsley stalks and bay leaves) in a saucepan bring to the boil and simmer for 2 – 3 mins.
4) Remove the aromatics and add the fish, then remove the saucepan from the heat. There should be enough residual heat in the saucepan to poach the fish gently without over cooking it. Remove the fish from the milk after 5 – 7 mins using a slotted spoon and drain. Reserve the milk for the béchamel sauce.
5) Blanch the leeks in boiling salted water, for 2 – 3 mins, refresh in iced water, when cool, pat them dry and aside.
6) In a separate saucepan melt the butter, and then add the flour to form a roux, cook the roux on a low heat for 1 – 2 mins, constantly stirring it so it doesn’t burn or stick.
7) Slowly or even in stages, add the warm milk the fish was poached in using a whisk to beat out any lumps to form a smooth béchamel sauce. Keep stirring with a whisk on a low heat until the flour has cooked out (i.e. the floury taste has disappeared). Sprinkle in the dill leaves. Season to taste.
8) To assemble the pie, scatter the poached fish in the base of your pie dish, then add the béchamel sauce, ensuring that all the pieces of fish are smothered in it. Scatter on the leeks and boiled egg, and then top with the mashed potato. Make some indentations with the tip of a palette knife, run a fork over the surface of the mash topping, this will give it texture as it bakes in the oven.
9) Place in a pre-heated oven at 220°C for approximately 15 – 20 mins until the topping turns a golden brown. Let the fish pie rest for 5 mins or so then serve with some wilted greens if you like.