The search for the perfect patty

It has a spicy meat filling, wrapped in a flaky, delicious yellow crust that melts in your mouth. But where can you find a real patty outside Jamaica?

Photograph by Desiree McEachrane

One of the strangest but most filling meals I ever enjoyed was the Jamaican specialty of bread and patty – essentially, a Jamaican patty sandwich.

Eating a meat pie in a sandwich was an alien concept to me, and as the waitress at the west London takeaway put it in front of me, she noticed the slightly stunned look on my face and said reassuringly, “You going like it, doh worry.”

I thought, this is massively carbohydrate-rich and calorific – it’s got to be wrong. But the beef patty was so damn good and flavourful, I couldn’t help but change my mind. “Life’s too short…this is entirely right.”
Along with jerk chicken, Jamaican patties are probably the Caribbean food that most non-West Indians in the UK have eaten. They’re widely available, tasty and inexpensive. I’d even go out on a limb and say they’ve become more popular lately – if their increased prominence in the supermarkets and shops is anything to go by.

Jamaican patties are the Caribbean’s contribution to a worldwide tradition of meat-filled pastries. The Spanish and Portuguese have empañadas, the Brits have the Cornish pasty, Italians have calzone, Indians have samosas and we have the patty.

The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia records: “The beef patty is a product of colonialism and migration developed after the introduction of the English turnover in the Caribbean, mixed with [the] cumin and curry seasonings of East Indian indentured servants in Jamaica, and cayenne pepper from African slaves. The firecracker taste of the Scotch bonnet, a hot pepper indigenous to Jamaica, sealed the flavour.”

I first tasted these spicy patties as a student at the University of the West Indies in St Augustine, Trinidad. The campus is home to students from all over the Caribbean and boasts a large Jamaican contingent, so it wasn’t unusual to find Jamaican goodies like Shirley biscuits, ginger cake and, of course, patties.

The patties in the “Big Caff” were huge, with a flaky, delicious yellow crust that melted in your mouth. There was spice and seasoning from the first mouthful of the minced beef filling that was always packed generously into the wonderful crust.

Even though I stopped eating them when I entered my vegetarian phase, the aroma and taste of those excellent patties always stayed with me.
Since I’ve been living in the UK, I can probably count the times I’ve eaten Jamaican patties. Unfortunately, very few of them were as good as the ones from my campus days.
To prepare for writing this column, I embarked on a hunt for some of the leading patties to do a taste test. But there were only two brands available in most of the places that I checked. Armed with beef and chicken patties from both companies, I was on my way to find out which would reach my meticulous standards.

After judicious testing, one brand emerged as supremely superior to the other. The crust had that traditional yellow colour and it was delightfully flaky. The fillings were well seasoned, and in the case of the chicken patties, you could taste chunks of chicken, not a mushy chicken-flavoured mess. Those patties were so good they tasted homemade.

“We first prepare our fillings combining fresh chicken, beef, lamb, fish or vegetables with a secret mix of Jamaican herbs and spices, then place them in a special pastry: the Kingston Crust.”

That’s the boast Port Royal Patties makes on their brightly coloured wrappers – but what exactly is “the Kingston crust”?

“The flaky pastry is the key thing in a patty,” Mark Tomlinson of the London-based patty company told me. “There is a certain flakiness that people like, and we try to achieve this in our crust.”

The importance of the crust was something that company owner Edward Johnston pointed out in a recent interview about the company’s prospects.

“Most of our competition in the UK makes a patty with a very heavy crust, which I call a ‘UK patty’. The UK patty does have its fans and its market, but the UK patty is not what is sold by the three major producers in Jamaica.”

From what I know of popular pies and pastries sold in this country, the “UK patty” is based on a shortcrust pastry, typically used to make traditional Cornish pasties.

Some patty recipes call for a teaspoon of curry powder, turmeric or annatto colouring in the pastry mixture, but Tomlinson said Port Royal uses apricot colour to achieve the appealing yellow tinge.

Since I want to try and make some patties in the future, I wanted to know what made the filling so tasty.

Tomlinson wasn’t telling. “I can’t give you all the secrets, but if you’re making beef patties, use mincemeat that’s not too fatty, but not too lean – about 50/50.

“Some of the seasonings we use in our fillings are scallions, thyme, pepper, garlic powder and onion powder. Plus you’ve got to use some browning to give it colour.”
With all this taste and goodness, I couldn’t forget to ask Tomlinson about the health benefits or otherwise of their patties.

“Some people believe that patties aren’t very healthy, and this was especially so when (celebrity chef) Jamie Oliver had his ‘healthy school dinners’ campaign,” he said. “But now many schools are buying from us, as well as hospitals.”

Fortunately, most people are sensible enough to know that eaten in moderation, and as part of an overall healthy diet, Jamaican patties are perfectly ok.

Port Royal has also broadened their product range to suit the diversity of cultures and lifestyles in the UK. So, for example, all the lamb used in the patties is halal and the patties are accredited by the Halal Food Authority, just as the spicy vegetable patties are accredited by the Vegetarian Society.

It’s not surprising, then, that despite the recession, their patty sales remain strong, and that’s because they suit the British demand for inexpensive but filling and tasty easy food.

When Johnston started this business in 2001, it was because he wanted people in the UK (far away from home) to enjoy patties that were of the same standard as the popular favourites back in Jamaica. I’d have to say he succeeded. The taste and smell of the patties I savoured definitely evoked memories of those patties I enjoyed as a student in St Augustine – and brought some much needed sunshine to a dull, grey winter day.
Port Royal Patties are widely available in supermarkets and ethnic shops in London and also in selected shops in Germany, Switzerland and Sweden.

For more information: www.portroyalpatties.co.uk