Thursday, November 5, 2009

Bonfire Night and Meat and Potato Pie

An American arriving in England on November 5th could be forgiven for thinking the Brits had taken leave of their senses. For on that night, throughout the realm, bonfires blaze, effigies are burned, and fireworks illuminate the night sky. And this has been happening every year since 1605. We do this to celebrate a foiled terrorist attack which would have blown up the Houses of Parliament, killing our King and his government.

On November 4th 1605, Robert Catesby and twelve other conspirators planted 36 barrels of gunpowder in the cellars of the Palace of Westminster. A fellow collaborator, Guy Fawkes, was left behind to light the fuse when King James I and his government entered the Houses of Parliament the following day.

Somehow the King discovered the plot, and in the early hours of November 5th, Fawkes was caught red handed and imprisoned in the Tower of London. His fellow conspirators were quickly rounded up, and all were later tried, convicted, and executed (they were hung, drawn and quartered), for the crime of high treason.

When the public learned of the thwarted plot, they lit bonfires to celebrate the King’s safety, and the event has been commemorated ever since.

Because of the Gunpowder Plot, the reigning monarch only enters the Houses of Parliament once a year, at the State Opening of Parliament. And prior to this event, the cellars of the Palace of Westminster are still searched by the palace guards.

I have many fond memories of Bonfire Night.

"Remember, remember, the fifth of November.
Its gunpowder plot,
We never forgot."

So went the rhyme my friends and I sang in childhood, usually in an effort to raise money for fireworks. The other tried and trusted way of obtaining firework money was to make a “guy” ― which usually consisted of some old clothing belonging to one of our dads, stuffed with newspaper. This dummy represented Guy Fawkes, who we would then wheel around in an old pram asking, “Penny for the guy.” Later we burned the guy on our bonfire, which was made from wood, old furniture, and any other combustible material we could find. The bonfire was always situated on some waste ground in our neighborhood.

It wasn’t until the actual night of November 5th that adults would become involved in the proceedings, with dads setting off fireworks and supervising the bonfire, and moms making all sorts of goodies to eat. My mother always made a big meat and potato pie, parkin, (a sweet, sticky cake), and treacle toffee, (a dark caramel candy), or plot toffee as we kids called it. And when the fireworks were gone, and the bonfire had died down, we would bake potatoes in the fire’s embers.

Bonfire Night was a real community affair and went on the length and breadth of Britain. Nowadays, for safety’s sake, the trend is more towards organized firework displays, and, sad to say, the event is rapidly loosing its appeal.

Now, whenever I make meat and potato pie, while the pie bakes, the rich aromas still evoke fond memories of my childhood and the wonderful Bonfire Nights we all shared.

Below is my mum’s recipe for meat and potato pie, although, unlike me, she did make her own pastry. If you make it, try to imagine a land ablaze with bonfires and a sky alight with fireworks, smell the wood smoke and the gunpowder and, "Remember, remember, the fifth of November."

Meat and Potato Pie

1 lb. stew beef
¼ cup all-purpose flour, seasoned with cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups beef broth/stock
1 large onion, divided, half chopped into big chunks, the other half just chopped
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 bay leaves

1 rutabaga peeled and cut into bite-size chunks
4 carrots, sliced
4 large potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-size chunks
1 refrigerated pie crust (or make your own if you prefer)
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon corn starch
2 tablespoons cold water

  • Put flour in a Ziplock bag, season with cracked pepper, add the beef stew meat and toss until coated.
  • In a large soup pot, or Dutch oven heat olive oil over a medium-high heat. Add the flour coated beef to the pan, season with more black pepper, and sauté until lightly browned. Add the large chunks of onion (reserve the smaller pieces to go in with the veggies) and sauté for a further minute or so. Add the beef broth/stock to the pan, and bring to boil. Add Worcestershire sauce, bay leaves then reduce heat and simmer covered for 1 hour.
  • After 1 hour, throw all remaining veggies into the pan. Return to boil, reduce heat, and simmer covered for about 30 minutes.
  • Using a slotted spoon transfer meat and veggies to a pie dish. Get all the meat out but you will have some veggies left over, you can serve these as a side dish to the pie. Allow filling to cool for about 20 minutes before topping with the pie crust. Meanwhile pre-heat oven to 400°F.
  • Add crust to pie, brush with beaten egg, cut a couple of slits in the top to allow steam to escape, and bake for 35-40 minutes or until crust is golden brown.
  • About 15 minutes before pie is ready re-heat stock and vegetables. For a thicker gravy mix 1 tablespoon of cornstarch with a little water and add to stock. Serve the veggies and gravy with the pie.