• Sofia makes shepherd's pie too, though her version is different. (Sofia Levin )Source: Sofia Levin
Sofia Levin traces her family history to discover why the humble pie feels so nostalgic.
Sofia Levin

7 Jul 2020 - 10:42 AM  UPDATED 3 Jun 2021 - 5:21 PM

If you flick through the smudged pages of my mother's cookbooks and printed recipes, hand-drawn stars mark the meals eaten without complaint by the whole family.

Her individually portioned chicken pies received the highest honour, three hand-drawn stars: little more than pulled chicken in an inoffensive roux flecked with parsley. I'd mimic my dad, lifting off the flaky, store-bought pastry lid to let the meat cool in the china ramekin. Then I'd sully it with tomato sauce.

Talking about the pies now, mum reveals they were her way of repurposing meat leftover from cooking chicken soup. "I did little individual pies because it's more appealing for kids; the fact you could pick them up with your fingers," she tells me.

I associate pies with Australia: Four'n Twenty in crinkly plastic that burned the roof of my mouth at the school canteen and at the football. Abby, my mum, moved to Melbourne from London in 1986. Surprisingly, she thinks of them as Australian, too. "I associate pies with Australia more than the UK, though steak and kidney pies are very British… when I think of minced meat pies, that's more Aussie; pastry and minced meat, with gristle," she laughs.

"It wasn't until I started cooking that I noticed not only what I had inherited in the kitchen, but also what I had changed." 

Mum recalls regularly eating shepherd's pies during her childhood, which she also cooked for us. Shepherd's pie, or cottage pie, has UK origins. It originated in the 18th century as a way to use up leftovers, not unlike my mother's chicken pies. People living in cottages were often poor, hence "cottage pie". The name "shepherd's pie" came in the mid-19th century to refer to those made with lamb. My family, despite calling it shepherd's pie, makes cottage pie. I check the time difference and call my grandmother, Stephanie, in London.

"The filling in shepherd's pie is like bolognese, minced beef but without the tomato and garlic, which gives it more of an old-fashioned flavour because we didn't use garlic in the '40s and '50s; it was quite exotic then," she says.

Unprompted, cooking tips follow: "It's very important you make ridges in the potato with a fork and then put it under the grill so it goes crunchy on the top." Nearly half an hour later, we're still talking pie. She tells me that my great grandmother made them from scratch "all the time", wants to know if we put hardboiled eggs in fish pies in Australia and shares her own recipe for a sort of vegetable sausage roll, the pastry lined with cream cheese. I tell her about mum's individual chicken pies. "I make pies in a large dish, because people can come back for more," she says.

I too make shepherd's pie, though my version is different ­– I married a pescatarian with a penchant for healthy eating. I make my filling with tinned tomatoes, caramelised onion, mock mince, mushrooms for extra texture and either Worcestershire sauce or a heaped tablespoon of Vegemite (you can't taste it, but it adds depth). Then I top it with mashed sweet potato instead of regular spuds.

As I'm discussing the recipe with mum, she asks if I remember my paternal grandma's signature pie. 'Ronnie made the best salmon pie with potato on top," she says, the memory of the person lighting up her voice as much as the memory of the dish. "She somehow made it really well with just tinned salmon and potato in this creamy sauce."

She looks for the recipe in an old book, but can't find it. As fate would have it, when everyone was stocking up on tinned tuna and beans in preparation for lockdown, my reflex was to reach for two cans of red salmon. My salmon pie won't be the same as Ronnie's, but its story won't ever change. 

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Easy peasy tinned salmon pie

Serves 4-6 people

  • 415 g can red salon (regular pink salmon is fine)
  • 500 g starchy potatoes
  • 120 g butter
  • 1 leek, finely sliced (white part only)
  • ⅓ cup plain flour
  • ⅔ cup milk
  • 1 cup frozen peas (optional)
  • 1 cup frozen corn kernels (optional)
  • ½ cup dill, finely chopped
  • 8 sheets filo pastry, defrosted
  • Salt and pepper to taste

1. Preheat oven to 220°C. Wash and peel potatoes. Cover with water in a pot and boil until a knife can be inserted with ease.
2. While the potatoes are boiling, add 50g of butter to a pan and saute sliced leek until it softens, around 5 minutes. Turn off heat.
3. In a small pot, heat 1/3 cup milk on a low. Slowly add 1/3 cup flour, whisking constantly to create a roux, until it thickens, about 5 minutes.
4. Add the roux to the leek over low heat, stirring to combine. Add the remaining milk 1/3 cup at a time, mixing until it becomes paste-like instead of liquid each time.
5. Drain tinned salmon, remove small bones if desired, and add to leek mixture. Turn off heat.
6. Drain the potatoes and add them back into the warm pot. Mash with remaining butter.
7. Add the leek and salmon mixture to the potatoes, along with frozen peas and corn. Mix well. Add chopped dill, salt and pepper and mix again.
8. Grease a deep ovenproof dish and line with filo pastry. Letting the pastry edges hang over the side. Pour the salmon mixture into the dish and then fold the pastry back over to create a lid. Add small, scrunched bits of pastry on top. Brush with butter and bake for 30 minutes. The top should be golden. Serve hot at the table with a sprig of dill.

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