Monday, 18 June 2012

Setting myself a challenge Day 4 – Fray Bentos Pie

2012 sees the 40th Anniversary of the progressive rock band Jethro Tull’s seminal work, Thick as a Brick. Released in 1972 as a single track LP it was a hit with loyal fans. This concept album played with the alter ego of a child genius Gerald Bostock who wrote a newspaper The St. Cleve Chronicle and Linwell Advertiser in which he dallied with the banality of a provincial paper. In many ways Thick as a Brick is an odd album but as a long standing Jethro Tull fan, I eagerly awaited seeing Ian Andreson’s Jethro Tull, as the band is now called, performing Thick as a Brick 2 this April in Bristol.

I was not disappointed. The later album is a 17 track update, loosely based on what may have happened to Gerald Bostock over the last 40 years. For me it is a welcome return to classic Tull, quirky and exceptionally crafted lyrics sandwiched between storming rock rhythms and melodious flute based folk music.  Not to everyone’s taste but for 30 years or so I have loved the complexity of Ian Anderson’s music making.  In particular there is a poignant track called "Wootton Bassett Town" recalling Gerald Bostocks involvement with the Afghan war.
However it is another track called “Cosy Corner” which ignited the germ of today’s 1000 word challenge. In this Gerald left school and now runs a corner shop with his wife. A cosy life embellished with a hot dinner of Fray Bentos Pie. I’d not heard the track before the concert in April, but at this point a huge photo of a Fray Bentos Pie was projected onto the screen, to loud applause and cheering. Seeing that image and the reception from the audience illustrated the sorts of minutiae of life which has always interested me. The side show is often more interesting than the main event.

I had almost forgotten about Fray Bentos pies. In an era of gastro-pub Michelin starred cuisine; it is easy to overlook the comforting foods of our past, and especially forgotten are the instant meals which became popular in the 1970s. Growing up in the era of Noel Edmonds Swap Shop, glam-rock, chicken-in-a-basket, Austin Maxi’s and mushroom haircuts, a veritable smorgasbord of instant meals began to flood the market.
Launched a decade earlier, Cadbury’s Smash that wonderfully amorphous instant potato mash, became a must have evening meal following a hugely successful advertising campaign on television, involving Martians discovering the delights of instant mashed potato. So successful was this advertising campaign, that it was voted second best advert of all time in a millennium poll. For a middle-class child from the north east it was all too exciting and just occasionally I was allowed Smash, as a treat.
Another occasional treat was Bird’s Angel Delight. My father had a garden awash with fruit; subtle flavours of fresh raspberry, strawberry and apples were in good supply. Angel Delight astonished me even back then with its chemically induced flavours. I think this is the main reason why I still cannot eat anything strawberry flavour. But it was always great fun to open the packet, pour the powder into a bowl, often coating the kitchen in a thin film of powder too, add milk, whisk and then leave to set. The best bit by far was the gloopy suction noise made by the spoon separating my first mouthful from the amorphous mass; rude noises and a small child, the height of amusement.
Later in the decade, Pot-Noodles erupted into my life. How exciting to have a plastic pot full of dehydrated unrecognisable material, just add water, leave to stand and hey presto, a nutritious meal was before me. As an agricultural student at Houghall Agricultural College in the early 1980’s these were my staple foods. I must have eaten hundreds of them.
However these convenience foods are in a way a technological development from the original concept of preserving foods for consumption at a later time. Historically many methods were used; drying, smoking, pickling and freezing, but these methods were of limited use when travelling, say as an army or on board ships. Nutritionally too much can be lost in the process and often these preserved foods had a short shelf life.
We have to thank Napoleon for the next step in preserving fresh food.  Needing a reliable way to feed his army, Napoleon offered reward to anyone who could develop a method of preserving fresh food. Nicolas Appert a French confectioner developed the process of heating food and then sealing it in a glass jar. Glass of course has a major flaw; it is heavy and breaks easily.
Not long after Appert’s discovery, preserving fresh food in a sealed tin was developed. At first canned food was the preserve of the armed forces, allowing fresh and above all nutritious food to be transported to the battlefield. But by the 1920s more and more canned foods were coming to the corner shop.
Enter stage left, Gerlad Bostock’s Fray Bentos Pie. These tinned meat pies are named after the town of Fray Bentos in Uruguay, itself named after a Jesuit priest. At the heart of the South American beef industry, the town began canning real meat in 1899. The pie we know and love today was introduced to the UK in the early 1960s. There is something quite satisfying in watching that flaccid beige topping erupt into a billowing golden puff pastry duvet a-top its meat contents. That is of course if one can get the lid off. Can there be any more difficult process as opening a Fray Bentos pie? Herculean efforts are needed, often involving heavy lifting machinery and arc welding equipment. However on the rare occasions I now have a Fray Bentos pie it whisks me back to long hot summer days playing in the garden. Mother would call and in I’d run to a Bentos pie, new potatoes and peas fresh from the garden and lashings of ginger beer.
“Cosy Corner” on Thick as a Brick 2 ably puts it "Fray Bentos pie – always a winner"


  1. A lovely evocative post Andrew bringing back so many memories - Angel Delight and Smash particularly and the difficulties of opening a Fray Bentos pie :) Do you remember Dream Topping? My mum often used this to accompany Angel Delight - so sickly!

  2. I remember my Mother being very pleased that she had bought some fish ball things covered in batter. They were nice although I don't recall their name, I think they were the first "ready food" she had ever used!Angel Delight, Yum!

  3. A very good read Andrew! I thought I had coined the phrase 'thick as a brick! (speaking of myself!) quite recently :-) I had certainly never heard of the song you mention!

    I just about remember those pies, they were actually quite tasty but very indigestible, I found. Cadbury's Smash I never had but I can remember you could buy new potatoes in tins and sausage rolls too!

  4. Hello Goosey, Ragged Robin and ShySongbird, sorry it's taken me a long time to reply. Dream topping?? Angel Delight?? Sausage Rolls in tins? Quality foods from the British larder :-) Maybe we had it good in the old days, we never worried about e-numbers or calories, fat content and the like. We jsut enjoyed the taste of what now in hindsight was absolutely rubbish food.

    Didn't do me any harm - well apart from the squint, the nervous twitch and hyperactivity that is :-)