Poverty and oysters ... Beef, stout and oyster pie

As Dickens' Sam Weller remarks in the Pickwick papers: 
'Poverty and oysters always seem to go together'.

Oysters have been savoured in Britain since Roman times. Shells have been found at many archaeological sites, with the Roman fort and Amphitheatre in Richborough as the most symbolically important one, and stretching as far north as Hadrian’s and the Antonine walls. Before the Romans came, the Britons regarded shellfish as something to eat when there was no fish or meat to be had. The little molluscs weren't sought after until the Romans started to farm them and even export them live to Rome, where they were considered a delicacy.

When the Romans withdrew and the Saxons invaded in the 5th century, so a rich culinary culture disappeared, which included the oyster farming. It would take centuries for the oyster to become popular again and the first recorded appearance is to be found in a 14th century cookery manuscript by the Master Chef of King Richard II.  

Throughout the Medieval period the church imposed a number of days where one should eat fish rather than meat. In fact, for a third of the year, eating meat was forbidden. Therefore the mixing of fish and meat in dishes only became popular later in the 16th century and an early 17th century cookbook gives the recipe for roasting mutton with oysters.

By the end of the 18th century the industry had become highly regulated and although oysters had been the delight of the rich for a very long time, industrialisation cheapened them, making oysters one of the staples of the diet of the poor. 

Beef and oyster pie is a classic Victorian dish; it was the food of the poor, and the poorer you were the more oysters you would put in your pie. Oysters were plenty, the smaller ones sold as fast food on the streets of London or pickled to keep, while the bigger ones were put in stews and pies to make up for the deficiency of meat. It was a cheap source of protein.

Oysters were also a typical food to be found in public houses, where they were most commonly served with a pint of stout. Stout beers were popular because of their strong flavour, higher alcohol content, longer shelf life and because they were cheaper than other beers. The claims of Stout being a nutritious drink made the pairing with oysters the perfect cheap meal for the working class on their way home with their wages.

Demand for oysters was high, with as many as 80 million oysters a year being transported from Whitstable's nutrient-rich waters to London's Billingsgate Market alone. In the middle of the 19th century the natural oyster beds became exhausted in England. As the oyster beds further declined, what had previously been the food of the poor became a delicacy for the upper classes once again.

This pie is wonderfully succulent; once a poor man’s dinner, it now graces our tables with elegance. The beef, oyster and stout or porter beer are a perfect pairing together with a rich suet crust - just like your nan used to make but let's kick it up a notch and put some effort into the decoration of the pie! It's fun to let your children have a go with the leftover pastry; you will have leftover with this recipe. Keep in the freezer until needed, defrost the evening before in your fridge.
This recipe works just as good as a stew, feeding 4 hungry mouths.

What do you need
For the stew
  • 1 large carrot, quartered and cut into 2 cm long pieces
  • 3 medium onions
  • 500 g chuck of beef, diced
  • flour to dust the meat
  • 1 pint of stout, Guinness or porter beer
  • 1 teaspoon of mushroom ketchup (if you don't have it, leave it out or use 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar)
  • 2 bay leaf
  • thyme
  • pepper and salt to season
  • water
  • 6 oysters, cleaned.

For the pastry

  • 300g plain white flour
  • 100g unsalted butter
  • 100g Atora shredded suet
  • a generous pinch of salt
  • 125 ml icecold water
  • 1 egg, beaten

      for the stew - filling

  • Preheat your oven to 160C
  • Add the carrots and onion to a cast iron casserole and color them over a medium fire.
  • Dust the meat with the flour and add it to the vegetables.
  • Immediately pour in the stout, mushroom vinegar and herbs.
    If the meat isn't completely covered in liquid, add some water or extra stout until it's just covered.
  • Bring to the boil without putting on the lid.
  • When boiling, put on the lid and place in a lower part of the oven for 3-3,5 hours.
    It depends on the animal used, the quality of the meat and how lean it is to know when the meat will be done. Check on it regularly so you don't end up with dry meat. The meat is done when it is about to fall apart.

    for the pastry lid

  • Combine the flour, butter, suet and salt in a large mixing bowl and use your fingers to rub the butter into the flour. Keep on doing this until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
  • Pour in the water and start pressing the liquid into the breadcrumb-like mixture. Be gentle as you must be careful not to overwork the dough.
  • When you have created a rough dough, wrap it in cling film and let it rest in the fridge for an hour or more. You can prepare the pastry the day before if you're feeling organized.
  • Preheat your oven to 180C
  • Ladle the stew into your shallow pie dish and place the oysters neatly so everyone will find some in his plate.
  • Use the beaten egg to eggwash the edges of the piedish.
  • Take your pastry out of the fridge and place it on a floured work surface. Now roll out the pastry about 1 cm thick and make sure it's larger than your pie dish.
  • Now carefully pick up the pastry and place it over the pie dish. Trim off the edges of the pastry so you get a nice lid. Now crimp the edges by using your thumb or a fork so the pastry lid is closed tightly.
  • Decorate the pie lid if you like and eggwash generously before putting into the oven on one of the lower parts.
  • The pie should be nice and golden after 40-45 minutes.

    Serve with peas and carrots because you got to have peas and carrots with pie … 
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