The plate looked perfect, like it was plucked from a photo shoot for a country pub on the outskirts of some major English city. In one corner sat a delicate quenelle of red onion and chilli marmalade, glistening and deep burgundy in colour.
Next to it, set in a second, purely functional dollop of the same marmalade, was a pickled onion about the size of a foosball from the popular pub game. The pearl of marmalade kept the onion from rolling and allowed it to stand stem side up, offering a decidedly organic, rustic accent. Occupying a solid third of the plate were skin-on fries, thick cut but crispy. These latter were topped liberally with brown sauce, a trick I learned in Edinburgh where the local chippies offer “salt and sauce” on their takeaway fries (chips).
The Edinburgh brown sauce in question is made of Brown Sauce proper (a ubiquitous HP-like condiment with a tangy edge) diluted with a bit of malt vinegar. The centrepiece of the plate was a fresh-from-the-oven, weighty steak and kidney pie, turned out upside down from its cooking tin. I flip my pies for plating because the underside is always softer than the top crust. Once inverted, the original top becomes an efficient and reliable base to cut into and support the filling of the pie on the fork, eventually softening under the gravy as the meal wanes, while the softer pie stem, now the top, gives way easily with the poke of a knife. In a proper pint glass before me, Bridge Brewing Hopilano IPA, one of the brewery’s finest, bubbled softly.
I was eager to describe this meal to you, reader, as I am the only person in my household who thoroughly relishes this stuff and so this week’s column is as close as I will get to sharing the pitch perfect meal with someone who may feel the same way about pies as I do, someone who understands that the heady funk of a gravy-stewed kidney is not an indulgence reserved for Leopold Bloom.
All of my meal ingredients, save the fries and beer, were secured at The British Butcher Shoppe, Queensbury Avenue location. I have spent much time in that hybrid butcher-grocer over the years, scoring Pickled Onion Monster Munch and Curly Wurly bars, cans of hard-to-come-by Irn-Bru soda or rounds of dense and delicious black pudding. Irrespective of other purchases, I invariably emerge from that shop with pies – glorious, decadent, meaty, toothsome pies made in countless combinations that begin with the words Steak And, or Chicken And. For me, a well-made Steak and Kidney pie is the king of pies, trumping Steak and Guinness, Steak and Mushroom, Melton Mowbray pork pies, or even the beloved tourtière, a specialty from my father’s side of the family and of the province I called home for nearly 13 years. The intensity of flavour, the juxtaposition of textures, and the ideal gravy absorption capacity of the meats of a steak and kidney pie cannot be rivalled, in this reviewer’s opinion. That said, a steak and kidney pie can also be a dire, gag-worthy affair if it is not executed by a savvy hand. Fortunately, The British Butcher has their recipe on lock and I have never had a disappointing experience.
The Boy humoured me by selecting a steak pie so he could join me in my eagerly anticipated meal. His pie was generously packed with lean meat and rich gravy, ultimately besting him at the halfway mark. I eyed up his leftovers with greedy eyes but ultimately thought better of it, my own dinner beginning to announce its magnitude some minutes after I finished, the pie having barely touched the sides on the way down. The kidney content of the pie, for those on the fence about trying this for the first time, was not overwhelming, representing maybe a third of the overall meat content. Paired with a nicely seasoned gravy, good buttery pastry, onions and vegetables, the bold kidney flavour becomes an accent, not a focus.
The caramelized red onion marmalade, by Scottish preserves brand Mackay’s, was a revelation and one of my favourite new things. It’s not inexpensive at $8 per jar, but it is exceptionally, richly flavoured and a little goes a long way. The presence of chilies in the mix helped keep the sweetness in check and contributed to the complexity of the preserve.
The pickled onions were by pickling giant Hayward’s of Chiswick Park, London. The British Butcher carries jars of the medium, strong, and hot versions, with the middle of the three preserved in a brine of such mouth-puckering tartness that every bite threatens full facial implosion like some sort of anthropomorphised, corrupted ouroboros. I prefer the medium tangy versions and appreciate how their bracing acidity can cut through the roundness of pastry and braised meat.
Pickled onions are $10 per jar, consistent with what you see in the import section of the local grocery store, but the key difference is that the British Butcher cycles through the product fast enough to prevent the onions from becoming soggy prior to purchase.
Fully committing to the British Butcher experience I had also picked up a Scotch Egg for lunch the day after my pie feast. I have not encountered such a weighty iteration of this snack anywhere else; the hard-boiled egg was wrapped in a solid two centimetres of housemade sausage meat and breadcrumbs, and cooked until golden brown. The sausage-to-egg ratio was two-to-one here, converting what is conventionally a snack food into a meal in its own right, competitively priced at $6.
Pies are $10 and can be purchased uncooked and frozen, or pre-cooked and ready to reheat. While pies were my focus for this column, it should be noted for the uninitiated that while the British Butcher Shoppe stocks a truly impressive collection of U.K. packaged goods, it remains a full-service butcher with cuts of all sorts, from roasts to rashers.
The British Butcher, 703 Queensbury Avenue, North Vancouver. TheBritishButcherShoppe.com (604-985-2444).
There is a second location at 1531 Marine Drive in West Vancouver.