I accredit my particular liking of oily fish to two childhood memories: The first is of a fisherman at Branscome beach on the Dorset coast who takes groups mackerel fishing in the summer. We would spend an hour racing to see who could catch the most and then barbecue the lot on the beach that evening. The second memory is from one of my favourite children’s books, The Mousehole Cat. Based on true events, the story tells of Cornish fisherman Tom Bawcock and his trusty cat Mowzer who brave the winter storm in their fishing boat to save the starving people of Mousehole.
Mowzer soothing the raging sea-cat
In the book the storm is personified as a raging storm-cat who is soothed by Mowzer’s purring. When the intrepid duo return they bake their catch into an enormous Stargazy Pie to feed the villagers. Traditionally this pie uses whole sardines whose heads poke through the pastry crust to gaze at the stars. Baked in this way the oil released from the fish during cooking is contained within the pie. Folk lore tells that Stargazy Pie, along with other unusual Cornish pies, prevented the Devil from crossing the Tamar into Cornwall. He reasoned that the Cornish seem to put anything and everything into a pie and decided to return to Devon before they take a fancy to ‘Devilly Pie’.
In Dorothy Hartley’s book Food in England she claims that ‘the vegetable or herb that the beast feeds upon is the best condiment to it when cooked… thus, Thyme for mountain grayling, watercress for brook trout’. Now, I’m not claiming that pilchards feed upon the following, but I think that bacon lardons, mushrooms, leeks and a mustard sauce compliment their flavoursome oily meat in my Stargazy Pie.
First of all make 350g of pastry an hour or so in advance and let it sit in the fridge. Crisp up bacon lardons in an oiled saucepan and add the vegetables to soften with a lid on. In a separate pan boil two or three hard boiled eggs.
Meanwhile roll out enough pastry to cover the bottom of your greased pie dish and par-bake. When it comes out of the oven, lay six gutted, deboned sardines on top of the pastry with their tails meeting in the middle and their heads poking out of the side of the dish.
Spoon over the fish the sliced eggs, vegetables and a sauce made from flour, butter, milk and mustard. Then cover with another layer of pastry so that the heads are poking out like the handles of a ship’s wheel. Crimp the edges and brush over with an egg glaze.
Bake at 220 celcius for 15 minutes, then turn down to 180 for a further 25-30 minutes. Serve with boiled potatoes and steamed broccoli.