With early dark evenings, a chill in the air, and a longing for comforting dishes, food writers often extol the virtues of 'brown food'.

The appeal is in the slow, contemplative chopping, slicing, dicing, and browning of the vegetables, then the meat, followed by the sizzle and splash of wine. Herbs, perhaps spices, are added, garlic too. Lid on. Into the oven or onto the back burner.

Two, three, even four hours later, as the aromas draw you back to the kitchen, the lid is lifted, and a rich, glossy heap of meltingly tender meat awaits. You are happy that you made twice as much as you need, because it's going to be even better the next day.Ham & High: Frances has been baking casseroles and pies in her new ovenFrances has been baking casseroles and pies in her new oven (Image: Frances Bissell)

These last few weeks, my best efforts have not been brown but golden. Having an oven again has made me re-learn all manner of dishes, which I used to love but had not cooked for years. The humble mashed potato-topped dishes such as cottage pie, shepherd's pie, or their fancy cousin made with diced or minced venison, have been warmly welcomed chez Bissell.

But even more enjoyable have been those dishes with a 'custard' 'type topping; moussaka and bobotie; minced lamb in one, minced beef in the second, a traditional Cape Malay dish. For this, the meat base is cooked first in the usual way; fried onions and curry spices or paste, a handful of sultanas and the same of flaked or chopped almonds, a drop of stock or water, and a long slow simmer until the beef is tender.

Ham & High: It's the season for comforting pies and bakes such as Bobotie, a South African curried mince pie It's the season for comforting pies and bakes such as Bobotie, a South African curried mince pie (Image: Frances Bissell)

Season to taste, adding a little lemon juice and zest, transfer to an ovenproof dish. Beat a couple of eggs with about 300 ml milk, add a generous grating of nutmeg, and pour over the meat. Two or three bayleaves and slices of lemon finish the dish, which you then bake at 180 C for about 35 minutes until the top is golden and slightly risen. Good on its own, even better with basmati rice.

But pies have been the winner. It was Jeremy Lee and his suet crust pie du jour at Quo Vadis, which got me started. Into my basket went the familiar box of suet, the one that my mother used, and she had the lightest hand for pastry. Don't be afraid of suet or lard. Both have their place in the baker's kitchen.

The filling can be anything you would make into a casserole. In fact, this is where it's handy to have made twice as much. My last casserole was mixed game and mushroom; the second time around, it could be served with pappardelle or in a suet crust. Here it is, from scratch, in a double crust pie, just waiting as John Keats might put it, for "a beaker full of the warm South".Ham & High: The egg-washed pie with its 'chimney' just before it goes into the ovenThe egg-washed pie with its 'chimney' just before it goes into the oven (Image: Frances Bissell)

Game and mushroom pie (Serves 4)

1 tablespoon olive oil or butter 

1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced

2 celery stalks

2 or 3 garlic cloves, sliced

500 g diced mixed game - pheasant, pigeon, venison, wild rabbit, hare

200 g belly pork with skin, diced 

Flour  - see recipe

250 ml red wine 

2 or 3 strips orange zest

Sprig of thyme and rosemary 

2 bayleaves and sage leaves


300 g very fresh button or cup mushrooms

1 tablespoon of butter

250 g self raising flour

150 g suet

Pinch of salt

Cold water - see recipe

Egg and milk mixed for glazing

Ham & High: The finished game and mushroom pieThe finished game and mushroom pie (Image: Frances Bissell)Method:

Heat the fat in a heavy frying pan and gently fry the onion, celery and garlic until wilted and beginning to bronze. Transfer to a casserole. In the same frying pan raise the heat and fry the meat in batches until nicely browned. Add the meat to the casserole.

With the heat still on, dust a little flour in the frying pan to take up the cooking juices and add the wine, scraping up any residues. Pour this over the meat. Tuck in the orange zest and herbs and a little salt and pepper. Cover and cook on the merest simmer for an hour or so until the meat is tender. You can cook the day before, scaling up the quantities if that suits you. Or freeze a batch or two for future dishes.

Meanwhile, slice and fry the mushrooms on a high heat until just golden. Put to one side.

To make the pastry, put the flour in a bowl with the suet and a little salt. Mix in enough water to give a soft, but not wet, pliable dough. Bring it together into a ball, cover and refrigerate while the meat is cooking.

When you are ready to assemble the pie, make sure the meat and the mushrooms are cool. Cut off a third of the dough for the lid. Roll out the remainder and with it line a shallow pie dish. Spoon in the cooked meat and mushrooms, reserving any cooking juices. Roll out the third of pastry and cover the pie. Seal the edges and glaze with beaten egg in milk.

Make a hole in the centre and place a paper chimney in it. Bake at 180C for about 40 to 50 minutes. Allow the pie to rest for 10 minutes or so before serving, with any gravy boiled up and poured through the hole created by the chimney.

(C) Frances Bissell 2023. All rights reserved.