For decades, the British had a love affair with the tinned pie. It was just so convenient: no fiddling about with meat from the butcher's; no pastry to make up; just remove the lid with a can-opener, then slam it into the oven for 25 minutes1. More than enough time to open a tin of marrowfat peas and put the kettle on for the Cadbury's Smash instant mashed potato - you could even whisk up a Bird's Angel Delight butterscotch mousse for afters. 1970s bliss.
When the cooking time's up, you remove it from the oven and marvel at how the puff pastry crust has risen, golden and flaky. Lift this carefully, and you'll find a layer of pastry which didn't rise; it has the consistency of soggy cardboard, but true tinned pie aficionados all agree this is the 'best bit'. Finally, at the bottom you'll find a few lumps of beef and, if you're lucky, kidney swimming in a thick gravy. The meat has the habit of collecting towards one side of the tin, so if you're dividing the pie, it's fairer to serve the crust layers first, and then spoon out the meat.
Into the Fray
The king of tinned pies was undoubtedly the Fray Bentos Steak and Kidney. The exotic brand name conjures up an image of strapping gauchos herding prime beef cattle across the Patagonian pampas, stopping occasionally at a small-town bar to sink a few beers and pull the local talent with a sizzling hot tango. In reality, Fray Bentos is a large Uruguayan factory town, named after a Jesuit priest.
In its heyday, the Liebig Extract of Meat Company provided tinned meats for export, largely to the UK, as well as Oxo beef extract. The Fray Bentos brand was launched in 1899, initially for corned beef, then later pies. By 1961, when the Fray Bentos Steak and Kidney was launched, pie production had shifted to Hackney, in the UK. In 1993, the brand was sold to the Campbells Soup Company, who closed the Hackney operation and moved production to Kings Lynn.
Yet, Fray Bentos was forever seen as South American, and the first blow to its dominance came in 1982 when the UK went to war with Uruguay's neighbour Argentina over the Falkland Islands. Sales of Fray Bentos pies and corned beef plummeted.
Then came the foodies. The 1980s had us slaving away in the kitchen, entertaining our yuppie friends with home cooking. The 1990s had us all attempting the recipes of TV celebrity chefs. In the Noughties we were asked to get back to basics with natural ingredients and locally-sourced produce. The tinned pie died a slow, lingering death, along with many of the other convenience brands. Not only that, but it was vilified in the press. Food writers held it up as the epitome of bad British cooking - the Austin Allegro of the larder.
Pensioner Rita Gibson wants to sue her local Co-op after a Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie struck her on the head as she stretched up to reach it. I reckon she got off lightly. She could have eaten it.
- Fiona Phillips, writing in The Mirror in 2004.
Despite becoming seriously unfashionable, the Fray Bentos Steak and Kidney Pie never quite disappeared. You may no longer see aisles full of them at the supermarket, but they have a loyal following, and during these dark days of the credit crunch the brand is actually increasing sales. Most surprisingly, people have started to admit their secret love of them. Playwright Alan Bleasdale and actor Sean Bean are famous fans, but so too was celebrity chef Keith Floyd, and even The Guardian's acerbic food critic Matthew Fort.
Fray Bentos sell a few alternative recipes, including Steak and Ale, and Chicken and Mushroom, but the Steak and Kidney was always the top seller. There's also a suet-based Steak and Kidney Pudding - you pierce the lid, then steam it by floating it in a saucepan of boiling water. The deep tin also serves as a handy eating-out-of utensil for camping holidays, or for students who are too lazy to wash up.
The flatter tins of the pies also have their uses: dog bowls, children's paint palettes and emergency ovenware spring to mind. Probably their most inventive use was by a group of armed robbers from Kent, who tried to raid a Securicor van in 2000. They painted the tins green, attached flashing lights and stuck them to the van with magnets, threatening that they would detonate the 'mines' if the security guards attempted to escape. Unsuccessful on that occasion, the hapless gang was finally caught later that year when they famously tried to steal diamonds from an exhibition at the Millennium Dome, after smashing their way inside with a JCB.