Who was the Cuban leader who led the revolution and took power in 1959? The answer is, obviously, Fray Bentos, although if you didn’t watch The Office, the joke might be lost on you. (It was the answer David Brent gave at the pub quiz, which helped his team lose the competition.)
For some reason, the name Fray Bentos has always attracted mirth. Even the troops in the singularly unfunny location of Passchendaele in 1917 managed to raise a laugh by nicknaming the newly invented tank “Fray Bentos”, as when they were riding in it they felt like a load of meat trapped in a tin. (I should point out that one of the soldiers who came up with the name also sold Fray Bentos products back in the UK, so he was an early example of a viral marketeer.) The joke must have resonated because the soldiers will have been used to tinned “bully beef” in their rations.
Fray Bentos is actually a town on the Uruguay River, right on the border with Argentina. It was home to one of the first and largest meat processing plants as early as 1863, and its name refers to a reclusive priest named Friar Benedict. But for me, the name will always evoke the tinned beef pies with a puff-pastry top that were a teatime treat back in the Seventies.
I think my mum always felt a bit guilty about buying these processed pies, but she shouldn’t have done on our behalf, as it was always one of our best-loved teas. I remember the impossibly flaky puff-pastry top, which would rise high over the tin containing a rich steak and kidney filling. We always had it with mash and peas.
There was something about the crunch as I cut through the top and used the back of my fork to collect the shards of pastry mixed in with the potato and gravy. In those days, we would have to share one between the four of us, but I think I could eat a whole one now.
This got me thinking. I am now in a position to devise my own version – and I won’t have to look out for the hard nuggets of kidney, which I dutifully ate but never really enjoyed.
I thought back to one of the first dishes I learnt to cook, namely beef and Guinness pie. I loved the sound of beef and Guinness together, but in reality the pie needed a bit of sweetness to counteract the bitter taste of the reduced stout. I solved this by adding some port. I must say that it worked a treat. I sometimes even included a few oysters, which I put in cold under the pastry before cooking.
The main problem was how to create the rise of the puff pastry: Fray Bentos pies always ascend beautifully straight, revealing their multiple layers of pastry as they go like a soil sample from an archaeological dig. The answer turned out to be simple: you cut the circle of puff pastry with a very sharp knife. This means that the layers of butter and pastry won’t get squeezed together, as they would be if you used a blunter one. This would prevent the layers rising properly.
So if, like me, you still hanker after the taste of childhood but have raised your food game since then, just follow today’s recipe and recreate a Seventies teatime – and this time, you can have a whole one to yourself.