Each Peach Pear Plum, I spy Tom Thumb; Tom Thumb in the cupboard, I spy Mother Hubbard…
The books I loved best, when I was very small, got into my blood, I think. I am incapable of thinking without the rhythm of those early books propping me up: cobbled street and prams in back yards are Peepo!; dogs of all shapes and sizes, Lynley Dodd; coming home, the glorious wingspan at the end of Owl Babies; an empty fridge is the fault of the Tiger; wrapping myself up in the duvet, I think “I have made a small house, called a cocoon, and I will sleep for more than two weeks”. Mostly, I am incapable of understanding pie, especially plum pie, without thinking of Each Peach Pear Plum. This is a pie for those Three Bears, and how kind they are. Kindness is important, and not enough people are kind, and yet people have been very kind to me, hauling me out of the river and lying me in the sun to dry out.
I wasn’t really a teddy bear sort of child- in my cot I clutched, pretentiously, at a beautiful green hardback of The Hobbit (this is true)- but I was a books sort of child, and a pie sort of child, and I was a very loved child. I’ve spoken before about how pie, for me, is the kindest food: this is not a true pie, because it’s only pastry on top, but it’ll do, I reckon. This is a kind pie. This is a good pie. This is pie for three bears, out hunting (that’s the venison), and pie for Mother Hubbard (that’s the plums). This is pie for Baby Buntings everywhere, pulled out of the river by friendly bears, and loved and safe.
Three Bears Pie
Serves six normal people, generously, with leftovers; three of us, bearlike, ate the whole bloody lot. That’s how good it is.
Fifteen minutes prep. time; ~four hours cooking time.
750g venison steak, diced. I really like these people, because their deer look happy, and you can call them up on the telephone. I never have, but I like knowing I could.
Six small plums
Four red onions
Six fat cloves of garlic
A good large fistful of parsnips- I expect I used about six. Half a bag of Sainsbury’s Basics parsnips.
Plenty of rosemary.
Bloody lots of red wine.
Worcester sauce, if you fancy.
Dried mushrooms- either bought dried, or dried yourself, as Jack Monroe does here. I like Jack Monroe, even though some of her recipes make me sad.
Two beef stock pots (You know, we all know, that I think those little jelly ones from Knorr are the best kind. I know. I bang on about them. But they are a game changer.)
Pastry. Recipe here, or buy some, in a packet, from a shop. This is not cheating, and nobody will mind.
Heavy-bottomed pot, like a casserole dish. Mine is this one from Sainsbury’s and I dig it extremely.
Sharp knife; chopping board; big bowl; stirring implement of some kind.
To begin with, take the meat from the little packets, and let it breathe. It seems strange to let dead meat breathe, but that is what it’s called. Put your pot over a medium flame to heat- cast iron takes a little while- and take your plums, and your onions, and your garlic, and chop them all reasonably finely, peeling the onions, leaving the peel on the plums, et cetera. Plums are my weakness: there is a tree, in Tall Man’s mother’s garden, and last summer I lay underneath it, the queen of the wasps, eating and eating, like the little girls in the poem. I feel a little guilty for eating plums in February, but they are gorgeous, and go extremely well with venison.
Fry off your onions and your plums and your garlic in a generous knob of butter, or splash of olive oil. I used both butter and garlic oil, because I thought we had run out of garlic: this is a very forgiving recipe, and really does not mind at all what you do to it, and was splendid. I suspect you could use any kind of good quality fat, really. It’ll be okay. Let them soften. Stick the kettle on. What we’re going for here is a rich, dark mush, a beautiful red colour, like garnets.
Make up a hearty mug full of stock: one beef stock pot, some rosemary, some dried mushrooms, and a pint-mug of boiling water. Leave this for at least twenty minutes, while you do the meat.
The meat needs flouring, to thicken the sauce, and let it brown better. I have no idea if it actually helps, of course, but it is much better when one bothers. In a large mixing bowl, mix a good sift of flour, a good pinch of sea salt and a good shake of mustard powder. Pat the venison dry on some kitchen roll, and dredge them through the flour, in the way you might for fried chicken. I do not often make fried chicken, but this is how I imagine Southern mothers doing it in their kitchens, a pot of greens on the stove and a bowl of flour on the table. (My imaginings of America are very hazy and mostly cobbled together out of books.) Anyway, like that- dredge them through, and throw them into the casserole to brown. Stir it round. Pour in a generous glug of red wine. Now another. And another. Drink some wine. Throw in some rosemary, chopped with scissors, and a beef stock pot. Stir until the stock pot dissolves. This is unorthodox, but it works, which is the main thing.
Chop some parsnips into rough rounds- some will need cutting in half, but that’s fine- and throw them in. Don’t worry too much. Swirl them round into the stew; pour over the mug of stock, including the dried mushrooms; stir some more. Add some more water, or wine, if it needs it. Taste it. Always taste things. Put the lid on the casserole, and let it simmer on the stove for a little while. Long enough, let’s say, for you to do the washing up- not that there’s much- and sweep the peelings into the bin and have a cup of tea. Let’s call it fifteen minutes. At some point in this time, turn the oven to 180 celsius, and rearrange the little slatty things so that the casserole dish will fit in. It is important to do the rearranging before you do the preheating, or you will burn your hands, and your hands are very precious. Do not burn your hands. I burned my hands. I am an idiot. It hurt. Don’t do that.
After fifteen minutes, take the lid off, bung in some Worcester sauce, or mushroom ketchup, or something of that nature. Something dark and muddy. You know the sort of thing. Stir it. Add a good spoon of grainy mustard. Put the lid back on, and WITH OVEN GLOVES, lift the dish into the oven. I remind you of the oven gloves, because nobody reminded me, and as above, I am an idiot, and my hands still hurt. Now go away. Go away and do other things for literally hours. Maybe three hours? Maybe four? WHO KNOWS. Now I think of it, you could do this in the slow cooker. That would probably be easier and more energy efficient. I didn’t, but as I keep telling you, I am an idiot.
Anyway, leave it alone for a long time. You can do literally anything in this time, but we’re going to talk books, and then you’re going to read those books, and we’re going to talk about them. A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book is great, and waiting for you. Andrew Motion’s biography of Philip Larkin is also great. Iain Banks’ Whit is great too. But the book I am enjoying most right now is Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy, which is YA set in magic!Russia, and it is like The Hunger Games, if the Hunger Games had magic, faux-Russian, fur robes and sexy dark bad guys. It’s so great, guys. It’s the most fun I’ve had reading a book in ages, and for this and many other recommendations I am intensely grateful to my marvellous friend Ewa, queen of all things fantasy. So, you go off and read those, or whatever it is you like to do while you wait for pies to cook.
You can poke at it after an hour, if you like, just to make sure it’s not sticking too much. It’s not that necessary.
Anyway, about half an hour before you’d like to eat, take the casserole out of the oven, put it back on a low hob heat, and take the lid off. We need the lid. We need it for a template. Roll out the pastry, and run the lid under the cold tap until it stops being too hot to touch. Ideally we’d like it cold. There is probably a more sensible way to do this, but I refer you to the idiot thing again. Lie the lid on the pastry, and slice round it, neatly, with a sharp knife. Taste the stew again. It should be fruity and juicy and meaty and dark and gorgeous. Have a bit on a bit of bread. There you go. Yup. Take it off the heat; lie the pastry lid over. You should have enough pastry around the sides to pinch the edges down, the way my grandmother taught me. Brush with beaten egg. Return to the oven. (This is the point where you have to stop reading and make the mash. We did Heart Attack Mash. Of course.)
Bake the pie until goldy-brown on top, and serve generously. This is a pie for sharing, and a pie for second helpings, and a pie for dipping bread into. Open the curtains, let in the first hints of spring, be safe and warm and loved, Baby Bunting.
Baby Bunting safe and dry, I spy plum pie.
Plum pie in the sun, I spy…everyone!