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Would you eat a dish named after a deadly disease?
On one of my first visits to the Swiss canton of Valais (Wallis) I was intrigued to find a cholera tart on a restaurant menu. ‘Surely this was a mistranslation?’, I thought. Who on earth would name a pie (let alone restaurant dish) after a deadly disease?
The popular explanation for the name of this tart is that it was ‘invented’ during the cholera pandemic that swept across Europe around the 1830s. There were many theories about how the disease was spread including bad air or miasma emanating from dung heaps or sewers. People were discouraged from leaving their homes to avoid spreading the disease. With limited food supplies they had to make do with what they had to hand. ‘Therefore, they packed potatoes, leeks, cheese, onions, apples, pears or speck – anything they happened to have at home – into a pastry dough and baked it in the oven,’ explains myswitzerland.com. ‘Today even top chefs have embraced this ideal use of leftovers.’
Another more palatable (and perhaps more plausible) explanation is that this savoury-sweet pie takes it name from the lidded iron pot it was cooked in called a ‘chole’.
The combination of potatoes, onion, ham and apples may sound familiar to any aficionados of British food history. In Blighty it is better known as Fidget Pie (or Fitchett Pie), hailing from the Midlands but particularly associated with Shropshire around harvest time. In Traditional Foods of Britain Laura Mason and Catherine Brown say that ‘The pie was reputed to smell foully during baking (perhaps it was thought to smell like a polecat; fitchett was the dialect name for these animals).’ They also suggested the name could be derived from the word ‘fitched’ meaning five sided, referring to the original shape of the pie.
Whatever its origins, it is a great way to use up bits and bobs in the fridge, which is when I make it. I should also add that it is neither foul smelling nor liable to make you ill (assuming your ingredients are sound to begin with).
1 potato c. 200-250g
2 tsp vegetable oil
75g bacon, cut into small pieces or lardons
1-2 eating apples c. 200g-250g in total
Salt, pepper and grated nutmeg to season
500g block puff pastry
75g strong, hard cheese e.g. cheddar, finely grated
100g cream (whichever you have to hand - double, single, creme fraiche or even clotted cream all work in this recipe. Milk will not!)
A little beaten egg or milk to brush the pie before baking
Preheat the oven to 180℃.
Peel the potato and cut into 1cm cubes. Cook in boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain then reserve until required.
Peel and cut the onions into half moon slices. Heat the oil in a frying pan then add the onion slices and bacon or lardons. Fry until onion softens. While the onion and bacon are cooking, peel and core the apples then cut into thick slices. Once the onion has softened add the apples and drained potato pieces. Stir well to combine and season with a little salt, pepper and grated nutmeg.
Roll two-thirds of the pastry out and line a 23cm loose bottomed tart tin (or a similar sized pie dish) leaving a little pastry overhanging the top of the tin. Spoon in half of the onion-bacon-potato-apple mixture. Scatter over half of the cheese. Add the remaining filling and cheese (in that order) then pour over the cream (or dollop over the filling if thick).
Roll out the remaining third of pastry to form the lid of the pie. Brush the pastry over hanging the top of the filled tart tin with water. Lay the remaining pastry over the top and press down to seal. Trim off any excess pastry to neaten up the pie.
Bake for 40-45 minutes until the pastry is golden. Serve hot or cold.