When I was a child and lived on the farm we ate mostly red meat. Chicken was a special treat. We all knew when mom was making chicken pie. If you hadn’t see our Ovambo house-man grab an unsuspecting chicken in the coup early in the morning; you found out later in the day. The stove would be stoked with camel thorn wood to heat the adjacent oven. The smell of the baking pie, mingled with the aroma of smoky wood, would drift first through the kitchen and then through most of the house. The steaming, mouth-watering pie, its crispy brown pastry decorated with pastry-cut flowers, made crunching sounds as mother cut a slice for each person.
After I got married the memory and the nostalgia of the chicken pie meals haunted me. My mother wasn’t with us anymore and she hadn’t left a written recipe. Well, there are plenty of chefs demonstrating on telly, like Nigella, or Ramsey the fast talking, swearing, chef. Surely one of their recipes would work. I tried as many as I could lay my hands on. Not the same though. But I was determined. It became an obsession. My husband took smaller portions of the often served dish and later friends, invited for a chicken pie meal, made vague excuses of other appointments!
Rummaging through my mother’s old books I found her trusted recipe book, The Practical Cookery Book for South Africa by S.H. van Tulleken. (1942). Surely, the recipe she used must be in this book….but alas not. The pies still lacked that special, mouth-watering flavour. My aunt, also an ex-farmers wife, came to visit and I asked her about the secret of Mom’s chicken pie. She looked at me and smiled, “Dear,” she said, “no secret. Nothing wrong with the recipes, it’s the ingredients. The farm chickens were not the pale chickens raised in batteries. They were organic with a taste of field ingredients. The butter she used was rich yellow farm butter. The smoky camelthorn wood fire oven also gave a very special flavour to the pies. The basic ingredients may be the same but the taste, or quality if you like, is so different!”
The family and I have gone off chicken pie for the moment!