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A Study in Shortcrust Self-portraiture

There is little in the way of traditional fanfare when my mother emerges from the house, holding the pie aloft like a newly promised messiah. Trumpets do not blare a rousing chorus. Nor does the cloying, spiced aroma of incense rise lazily to our nostrils. Instead, the birds continue to chortle in the trees, and the undeniable scent of summer - freshly cut grass, warm earth, dried sweat - lingers in the air.

My father is the first to react, closing his newspaper and placing it gently on the flagstone floor. Two vacant chairs are suddenly filled as my brothers land clattering in them, breathless and giggling. Throughout it all I remain where I have been, on the edge of my seat, clutching my cutlery.

It is thought that the derivation of the word pie comes from Magpie, because the dish - much like the animal – collects a variety of things. Humans too share this tendency; we gather opinions and experiences with a gusto to rival that of any scavenging bird. Our compulsion to express these identities - when coupled with the pies’ ability to suggest much about its maker - marks the dish as an anthropologic indicator, despite the word’s feathery etymology. Where someone lives, their cultural background, and even familial histories can be discerned from the pie they place before you.

What's true for them is true for yourself too. And while shortcrust self-portraiture may seem a foolish, even narcissistic practice to some, I have yet to find a better way of discovering my true tastes than with my own tongue.

Similar to the Herdwick that roams the fells, the pie of my youth was hefted to the land; Cumbria filled my pastry in the viscous form of steak and ale. Battered, bruised and bleeding was how I first encountered it, with a face still red from the shower and draped in a shirt five years too big for me. I devoured the steaming, gravy covered affirmation of my effort, scraping the paper plate clean with a brittle, plastic fork. Horizontal rain lashed the windows and the smell of stale beer permeated into my clothes as I asked my new teammates an innocent question.

‘You mean we get this every Sunday?’.

Unfortunately, the foil-bottomed fancies of my childhood could not last forever. As the Sunday morning matches gave way to Saturday night parties, I lost one passion and gained another. My teammates became employees and I a student, winging my way south on a cloud of youthful excitement. Here the pies were filled with fish, their heads often leering up out of the pastry to catch a glimpse of me. More often than not, I’m sure they saw a pint of cider.

Although I may never tire of post-surf pasties eaten on the cliffs above an empty beach, one cannot stay shackled to the certainties of student-hood forever. And so, too impatient for a mid-life crisis, I decided on having a quartered one and flew incessantly across the Earth. Mezcal, Tamales and a breakup were followed by Bintang, Nasi Goreng, and an earthquake. Eventually I found myself living amongst the dusty streets of Northern Spain, where my only companions were Vermouth and the ever-present sun. Through it all I found - with a feeling of mournful pride - that there was an inexplicable dearth of pies outside our little isle.

Once back within its sheltered shores I finally began my portrait. The topping: blistered pumpkin seeds that sun themselves like the Castilian cobblestones I spent months getting lost on. The hard shell: salty like the Cornish air. But it is the filling, earthy beetroot, wilted spinach and softened onions, that takes me back to that place I miss the most. Where my mother would place her offering on the garden table and all five of us would sit together, as one.


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