Once upon a time, a chicken pie healed my broken heart. It was in the middle of winter. The bleakest part of the year, when the long nights are tied up with tinsel. Like any sensible grown-up who’s watched their life leap enthusiastically off the rails and crash to the bottom of the canyon, I ran home. I ran home and hid on my parents’ sofa under a motley of blankets, and I watched cartoons.
If there was a kids movie in the TV guide, I watched it. I wanted singing squirrels, dancing donkeys, grumpy fairies, curious dwarves, princes, princesses, witches, wizards, and houses stocked with magic furniture that had thoughts and opinions of its own. I wanted them because I knew how things would work out for them: in a spectacular, technicolour happily ever after. With fireworks. And if the toy dinosaurs and independently-minded ants could all meet and settle down, then surely so could I?
My family were very patient with this onslaught of sentimentality. And if there’s ever a time of year to sit on soft furnishings and gorge on emotions, then it’s Christmas. So we watched the flicks together, and it was OK to cry because we all had a little something in our eye. But eventually, as my appetite for animations increased and my hunger for actual food fell away, I began to be a concern.
I was a worry. A worry that couldn’t be fixed with tea and biscuits, a nice slice of cake or nourishing soup. My family was left with only one option: I’d have to be subjected to fresh air and exercise. It was time for A Walk.
The walk was a long, wet march over fields of clinging soil and down paths lethally paved with sodden leaves. The sky was low and grim and the countryside looked like passages from Hardy. If anyone had been hoping to persuade me that the world wasn’t bleak, they’d picked the wrong slice of Hampshire to do it in. Even the pub seemed to be closed in on itself, showing dark windows and doors to the fading day.
The lunch menu was short, made up of easy things that the barmaid unlucky enough to be working her bank holiday could assemble (sandwiches) or heat up (soup and chicken pie). Being greedy still at heart, if not in practice, I ordered the pie.
It arrived looking grey and mottled, as if someone had baked fog. A thick layer of suet pastry welded to a brown pool of chicken and gravy. My appetite had given up on existence a few weeks before and this didn’t seem likely to haul it out of its grave. But I had to make a show for my parents, so I took a bite.
It tasted like hugs. It tasted like all the kind looks and squeezes I’d had since everything fell apart. I took another bite and finally, at last, I knew that everything would be OK.
Chicken & leek pie with a suet crust
300g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
125g beef suet
50g butter, diced, plus extra for frying
500ml whole milk, plus extra to glaze
1-2 tsp wholegrain mustard
2-3 leeks, around 300g, trimmed and sliced
300g roast chicken, white and dark meat, shredded
A handful of tarragon leaves, finely chopped
Sift 250g of the flour into a bowl. Add the suet and a pinch of salt. Mix together with your hand, then add enough cold water to bring the pastry together – about 150ml. Turn the pastry out, wrap and chill for half an hour.
Preheat the oven to gas mark 4/180°C/fan oven 160°C. Make the white sauce by melting half the butter in a pan. Add the remaining flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Slowly whisk in the milk until it is combined and smooth.
Bring to the boil, whisking all the while, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes till the sauce is thick. Take off the heat and add salt, white pepper and mustard to taste. Set aside.
Make the filling by melting the remaining butter in a deep frying pan or large pan. Add the leeks. Season them with a little salt and pepper. Keep the heat low and sweat the leeks till they are soft. Stir in the chicken and tarragon. Cook for a few minutes to get the flavours to mingle.
Stir the white sauce into the chicken. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Spoon the whole lot into a pie dish.
Dust your work surface with a little flour. Roll out the pastry to fit the top of the pie dish. Carefully lay over the top of the chicken and pinch round the edges to seal it to the pie dish. If you have any trimmings, you can make them into humorous pie decorations.
Brush the whole lot with milk. Poke a hole or two in the middle with a skewer. Bake for about 45 minutes or till the pie is golden. Serve with mash and veg.