A Month of Contrasts, A Month of Pie

(PHOTO: View out of my Monte-Carlo hotel room)

It is my last day in Europe after a five-week journey. I was in five countries, spoke five languages, spent money in four currencies, and baked eight pies. My travels started in Mexico and took me to Germany, Switzerland, England, Monaco, and back to Germany. It’s a fascinating thing to move between so many cultures, landscapes, and languages. During this month I have perused the halls of the Frankfurt Book Fair, hiked in the Swiss Alps, driven through The Cotswalds in England’s countryside, walked the length of Kings’ Road in Chelsea, and dined with Prince Albert (OK, so it was along with 300 other people) in Monaco. Tomorrow I return to Saltillo, Mexico.

(PHOTO: Close encouters with cows during a hike in the Swiss Emmental)

I feel very privileged to be able to live a life as rich and varied as this. “Varied,” however, may be the wrong word. “Schizophrenic” may be more like it. To underscore this, just yesterday I was working on the publicity for a conference in Monte-Carlo, Monaco. Today I was baking apple pie in Stuttgart, Germany. Yesterday I was dressed in my pin-striped Armani suit. Today I wore my ratty jeans and running shoes. Yesterday I was elbow to elbow with high-ranking media executives. Today I was up to my elbows in pie dough with my friend Julia and her mother. Yesterday I was asked, “Voulez-vous aller à l’aéroport dans la Bentley ou la Masarati?” Today I was asking, “Haben Sie noch mehr Äpfel für den Pie?” Tomorrow I will be saying decidedly less interesting things like, “Tengo que lavar mi ropa.” (I have to do my laundry.)
(PHOTO: Looking toward the Battersea Bridge in London)

What continues to amaze me through all this international travel is the common language of pie. No matter what country, I would always find that people love pie. I discovered so many kinds of pie and pie-lovers this month – from the British palm reader who told me of the Stargazy Pie to the French CEO who reminisced about his grandmother’s Pear Tatin to the waiter in the Chelsea pub who recommended the Steak & Mushroom Pie over the Fish & Chips. No matter whether a pie was filled with fruit or fish, cheese or chocolate, people were always eager to share recipes, stories, bites, and a smile.

Though I have no idea where the journey will take me next, clearly, I will continue to find pie. Or, as is more often the case, pie will find me.

How To Make an Apple Pie in London

How do you make an apple pie in London? First you travel from Mexico, to Germany, to Switzerland and then take EasyJet to London to visit one of your dearest, most favorite, and definitely most FUN friends in the world. (Here she is, the gorgeous Alayne Reesberg, pictured below.) No sooner do you arrive you pack up the car and head out of the city to The Cotswolds, the quaint countryside near Oxford, about an hour and a half northwest of London.

You navigate the winding country roads, dodging wild pheasants, and end up in the town of Burford where can easily imagine you’re going to run into William Shakespeare on the street. You resist stopping on Burford’s High Street (pictured) for a spot of tea and a plate of scones in one of its many inviting tea shops and instead keep driving until you come to the cottage of Alayne’s friends.

When you get to this cottage — a dreamy little storybook thatched roof place — you meet the equally charming couple that lives in it. Jeremy (who Alayne met during her childhood in South Africa) has an autographed picture of Prince Charles and Julia is wearing her diamond necklace with jeans and a flannel shirt. Julia offers you a bag of apples from the trees in her back yard. The apples, you know, will taste better than anything you could buy in a London grocery store as her yard is as magical as the cottage — lush and green, surrounded by grazing sheep and a meandering creek, and there’s an antique covered wagon from Ireland painted fire-engine red sitting in the middle of it all. (The word “eccentric” comes to mind.) You happily accept the apples, putting the bag in the car and driving back to London.

Your apples (pictured above) find their way back to the posh city apartment. A new day begins as daw breaks over the River Thames and Buckingham Palace. It’s a good day to bake a pie.
But before you can get started you shop at Waitrose, an upscale grocery store. You choose from a variety of flours you’ve never seen before and settle on the “Strong White Bread Flour,” attracted to the words “Strong” and “White” and not realizing the “Bread” part until you get home.
Bread, pie, it’s all “jolly good” or “brilliant!” as the Brits like to say.
Next you gather up a few willing pie students — in this case, your host Alayne and her friend Dee (both South Africans living in London), along with Dee’s 2-and-1/2-year-old son, Rafe. You tie on aprons, pour a glass of wine (juice for Rafe), get out more wine bottles to use as rolling pins, and get to work.

(For the complete, step-by-step apple pie process, see “How to Make an Apple Pie in Mexico.”)
Later, you watch as yet another perfect pie enters the world and another baker is born.

Dee (pictured above) exclaims, “Dahling, I cahhn’t believe I made this. It looks fine, doesn’t it. A bloody miracle, actually.”
After indulging in several steaming, cinnamon-sprinkled pieces of their creations you feel happy, but not only because of the warm pie in your belly. It’s the beaming smiles on your friends’ faces that make the evening so satisfying, so — I just have to say it — fit for a queen.
Until I report from the next country, cheerio!

Stargazy Pie and Other Things I Learned From a London Psychic

Gazing at the stars…in more ways than one.

(This picture of STARGAZY PIE was borrowed from the Internet…thanks to whoever took it.)

The subject of pie inevitably comes up no matter where I go it seems. “Pie” follows me everywhere, as if I’m wearing a perfume of cinnamon and apples that hangs on me the way a scent stays in the kitchen long after a pie is done baking.

Take, for example, the palm reading I just had done on King’s Road in London. The woman, Diana (and I don’t mean Princess) studied the lines in my hand with her magnifying glass and asked me if I’m a writer. “Yes, I am,” I replied, impressed with her first of many correct intuitions.

“Are you also a teacher?” she asked.

I hestitated a moment and then ventured, “Well, I do teach people how to make pie,” quickly adding, “American-style pies, like apple pie.”

Her eyes lit up, she looked directly at me and smiled. “You should go to Books for Cooks in Notting Hill,” she said. It’s got the biggest and best cookbook collection in London, if not all of England. You could find many pie books there.”

“I’ll be sure to check it out,” I said, anxious for her to get back to my reading so she could tell me about the rest of my life.

“You could make pie cards, postcards, and send them to people,” she continued.

“Uh huh,” I nodded. Now let’s get on with it. What do you see in my lifeline?

“I see that you’re impatient. And instead of delegating you would rather do all the work yourself.”

Ouch.

“I see international travel in your future, over long distances,” she continued, peering at the lines on my palm. Not that there was much clairvoyance to her statement seeing as I was already 5,000 miles from home. “You could write about pies around the world.”

That got my attention. I hadn’t told her about my blog. “I already am,” I told her, amazed that she had hit on exactly what I love doing. How did she know that? Did she detect cinnamon under my nails and computer keyboard indentations on my fingertips?

Maybe we seek out psychics to affirm what we already know as our truth. I don’t know if writing about pie is my destiny, but it’s what makes me happy. It’s one of the few things, work-wise, that I am passionate about these days. Will I ever make a living at this? I’d love it if that happened — god knows, I need to earn money. Food, rent, health insurance, and international travel are not cheap. But even if I don’t get some huge audience on my blog (to eventually earn ad dollars) or publish some money-making bestseller (I do have a book of my pie essays in the works), it was somehow reassuring to hear that writing — be it about pie, about the world, or a combination of both — is in the (Tarot) cards for me.

“Write the name of your blog down for me before you leave,” she said. “I’d love to see it.”

She finished the session convincing me my future looks bright, and as I scribbled my blog URL on the back of my business card she asked, “Do you know about Stargazy Pie?” I shook my head no. “It’s a pie that’s a specialty of Cornwall. The fish are lined up with their heads sticking out from under the crust, looking up at the stars.”

The image of the poor little dead fish looking longingly at the sky with lifeless eyes made me a little sad. But I was so intrigued I looked it up online as soon as I got back to the apartment. I found a Stargazy Pie recipe by London chef Mark Hix that sounded rather delicious, and easy. (Recipe is also below.)

I don’t know if the rest will come true from my reading — a new place to live, a trip to Bali, a windfall of cash, etc. — but I definitely see a new pie in my future.

STARGAZY PIE
Serves: 4 Prep: 25 min Cook: 1 hr
Ingredients25g Butter1 onion, finely chopped3 rashers rindless streaky bacon, chopped into rough 5mm dice1/2 tbsp Flour, plus more for dusting3 tbsp dry white wine250ml fish stock, (or a corner of a good-quality fish stock cube dissolved in 250ml hot water)300ml double cream2 tbsp chopped Parsley2 hard-boiled Eggs, shelled and chopped6 pilchards, herrings, or small mackerel, filleted, any residual bones removed and heads reserved200g Puff pastry, rolled out to a thickness of about 3mm1 egg, beaten

1. Heat the butter in a medium pan and gently cook the onion and bacon until soft. Add the flour and stir well, then slowly add the wine and fish stock, stirring well to prevent lumps forming. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes.
2. Add the cream, bring back to the boil and simmer until reduced by half and thickened. Remove from the heat; add the parsley and chopped egg, season with salt and pepper and leave to cool.
3. Preheat the oven to 200C/gas 6.
4. Cut the fillets of fish in half and lay them in a shallow pie or flan dish, then lightly season with salt and pepper.
5. Pour the sauce over the fish. Lay the pastry over the dish and trim it to size. Make 6 small slits in the pastry and push the reserved fish heads through them. Brush the top with the beaten egg. Bake for 40-45 minutes until the pastry is golden and risen.
6. Serve with greens in autumn and winter, or with a selection of spring vegetables.

To read more about Mark Hix and see more of his recipes, including a Beef Shin, Porter and Oyster Pie (huh?!) click here.

Signs of Pie in England

Here in England you may not find pumpkin, strawberry rhubarb, lemon meringue, or other American favorites but oh you will find plenty of pie! Steak and Kidney Pie, Fish Pie, Shepherd’s Pie, Cottage Pie, and even something called Chesire Fidget Pie. The Brits may like their pies savory instead of sweet, filled with meat instead of fruit, but to that I say variety is the spice of life!

And on that read-between-the-lines theme of cultural tolerance, let me just report from London how ecstatic people are outside of the USA about the presidential election. People stayed up through the night to hear the results and, finally, at 4:20 a.m. GMT we got the good news about Barack Obama. People were toasting pints of Guinness in pubs all over Great Britain and beyond. We may be sleep-deprived here today, but we’re not too tired to get started immediately in helping mend America’s reputation in the world.
With that, I am about to teach my British hosts how to make an apple pie, American-style — an appropriate flavor, I feel, because with a new president life does indeed seem very SWEET.

Bird by Bird, Pie by Pie

Dawn in London, 6AM Sunday 2 November 2008
It’s been three weeks since my last pie post. I’m traveling non-stop (for what will be a total of 8 weeks) and haven’t been able to focus on writing. (If you were living out of a suitcase and having to wash all your undies by hand, you too might be thinking less about blogging and more about where to find a clothesline.)

I love blogging about pie, but the thing is, once you lose the momentum of blogging it’s overwhelming to know where and how to start again. There’s just so much to write about! No matter where in the world I am (Los Angeles, Saltillo, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Bern, London) I find pie stories every single day. It’s become so daunting, in fact, that I have developed a new momentum…of procrastinating.
I tossed and turned in bed last night, beating myself up again for yet another missed day of blogging, until I gently reminded myself of Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. In it she talks of how her father advised her brother, who was crying over how on earth he was going to finish his school report on birds, to simply “take it bird by bird.”
Add to that, I happened to read an article by my journalist friend, David Hochman, about Malcom Gladwell’s new book, Outliers (out November 18). David quotes Gladwell as saying, “Talent is overrated. What really matters is work. Put in the hours and it will happen (wake up before the sun 360 days of the year and you WILL be successful.)”
So today, I got out of bed at 6:00 a.m., turned on my computer, and will now resume my postings, one bird — er, pie — at a time. I’m happy to be back. At least to my virtual home.