Chewing the fat

Categories: Reflections and opinions

Regular blogger and demo chef Luke Mackay talks about his love of—and the many uses for—suet, in honour of British Pie Week

Words: Luke Mackay

Suet has rather snuck up on me over the years and become one of my absolute favourite ingredients. It doesn’t sound great on paper—fancy some animal kidney fat?—but it’s one of those ingredients that does things that can’t be replicated by anything else and is touched with magical alchemy when added to a multitude of sweet and savoury dishes.

Suet paste was used in the Middle Ages to make small dumplings. The most famous version of these is something called college pudding, which was served to university students—the oldest recipe, from Cambridge, is dated 1617. From what I can work out, college pudding is a cousin of our Christmas pudding, crammed as it was with suet, dried fruits and spice.  

Suet is often centre stage when it comes to the wonderful tradition of Great British nursery puddings: jam roly poly, spotted dick, and of course mince pies and Christmas pudding. But I love it even more in the depths of winter with meat and rich gravy. Suet is synonymous with rib-sticking, which is the perfect evocative phrase. It gives pastry a richness and unctuousness that you will never replicate with other shortening agents. It sticks to the roof of your mouth, coating it with flavour. Ale will help here, or a glass of something old and red.

A happy man
I recently had a meal at The Kingham Plough. It was freezing cold and pouring with rain when we arrived, looking like a couple of drowned rats. A roaring fire helped, but not as much as seeing steak and kidney pudding on the menu. I could have stayed for a week. I realised then that if ever I see something containing suet on a menu, I will order it. If there’s animal kidney fat and ideally animal kidneys on your menu, then I’m a happy man.

To celebrate British Pie Week, I have come up with a pie that celebrates suet, free-range chicken, bay leaves, onions, British charcuterie and most importantly, simplicity.

One of the things that I do now when I develop a recipe is literally the opposite of what I did, say, 10 years ago: I take things away. I used to add little sausage balls, sage, ham, mushrooms, leeks and any manner of other ingredients when I made a chicken pie. This one has a handful of ingredients, but they are all crucial and all hold their own. So many recipes will say “add a bay leaf” and you’ll reach for the back of your spice cupboard and pull out a desiccated leaf that crumbles to dust immediately. Pointless. I want this pie to taste of bay, so I use six fresh leaves from a tree in my garden.

Melting and moist
Bay, chicken, sweet melting onions, British chorizo and rich crisp, soggy suet pastry make for a wonderful pie. The inherent crispness and sogginess is one of the great joys of suet pastry—it’s so full of fat that you can’t fail to have a crispy lid, but so unctuous that everything within it is soft and melting and moist.