The Completely True and Utter Story of Banoffi Pie
It’s not as if we’d discovered the double helix or cold fusion, but it has been a phenomenon that a simple pudding has become world famous. I don’t talk about it much these days in case I sound like one of those old rock stars who only ever had one hit and insists on telling everybody at every opportunity. But if I’m asked I usually say this, which I happen to believe is true: Nobody ever invents dishes – they evolve. This then is how it happened. It may be a bit mundane but I’d like to put the record straight.
In the late 1960’s there were the seeds of a food revolution sprouting. Foreign travel and Elizabeth David were getting through to the British public that there was more to food than boiled beef and plum duff. I had completed a two year catering course at Swindon college reasonably competently and had got a job at a small restaurant in Berkshire as an assistant sous chef. Actually there were only two chefs so I was also first commis, last commis and kitchen skivvy.
Russell used to do all the important things like main courses, pates and patisserie – I did all the rest. Russell had his secret recipes one of which was a dessert he had brought back from America called Blum’s Coffee Toffee Pie. However it was no secret that it rarely worked. The toffee was made by boiling sugar, butter and cream together to produce a smooth, thick toffee which was poured into a pastry case and topped with coffee flavoured whipped cream. Sometimes it didn’t set at all, other times it dried like concrete. The tantrums Russell threw when it didn’t work schooled me well in the art of profanity if nothing else.
A year later I moved on to a head chef’s job at a small restaurant just opening in Sussex called The Hungry Monk. I took all Russell’s secret recipes with me but quietly forgot about BCT pie, as it was known in kitchen chit abbreviation, (the BC probably stood for something else entirely in Russell’s mind). When I say head chef what I really mean is only chef – so I now got to do the main courses along with everything else. This was the early seventies and the food revolution was in full swing. There was more to life even than Prawn Cocktail and Steak Diane. I was encouraged to get inventive so ratatouille, taramasalata, chicken pancakes, and moussaka appeared on my menus. Then in a conversation with my sister she told me about boiling cans of condensed milk unopened in water for several hours, which produced a soft toffee. A light bulb lit up in my head – I would resurrect BCT pie.
The owner of this restaurant, Nigel Mackenzie, was never one to let me bask in the light of inventive glory for long. The words ‘surely we can make this even better’ still ring in my ears today. He decided that it required something else, a new dimension, a bit of a tweak here and there. We tried some different variations, apple was quite good, mandarin oranges were downright disgusting. Nigel suggested bananas and straight away we knew we had got it right. Like the classic combinations of strawberries and cream, bacon and eggs and sausage and mash it is something that is more than just the sum of its parts. The only trouble now was that we had to find another name as banana, coffee, toffee pie was getting a bit long winded. It was Nigel who came up with the word ‘Banoffi’ as a combination and abbreviation of the syllables in the ingredients. It was only really meant as a temporary name but it seemed to stick and although it seemed a bit silly at the time this was in the days when ‘Lucy Moxon’s Lemon Posset’ and ‘Tipsy Pudding’ were common menu parlance.
Without that name we would not have been able to trace the rise in popularity of this concoction. It started as feedback from customers who rang to book and to check that it was still on the menu until it got to the point when we couldn’t take it off. Within a couple of years I began to see it on a lot of menus of other restaurants, (chefs always check out menus wherever they are – you can read a lot more than just food from a menu). People we knew coming back from abroad reported seeing it on menus in Australia and America and there were even stories of it being served at No 10 and Buckingham Palace. The word ‘Banoffi’ now has the distinction of being listed in the Oxford English Dictionary.
That was a long time ago and now every supermarket has a version and there are Banoffi ice creams, biscuits, chocolates and sundry other items – and no, we have never made a penny from it. Even if one of us had been canny enough to trade mark the name, and besides any firm wanting to use the idea would have just thought up another name. You can’t get a royalty from an invented dish, although I can’t see that it would be any more unenforceable or complicated than in the music business. But that is not the point, I just don’t mind. OK it would be nice to get a penny for every Banoffi made world wide. I don’t even mind that I won’t be remembered I just like the fact that many years hence someone somewhere will be making a Banoffi pie. Anyway I didn’t invent it – it evolved.
So many years have passed since those early days starting my career as a teenager that I sometimes have a moment when I worry if I have remembered everything accurately. I have lost touch with the people from the very early part of the story. Was it really called Blum’s? Did Russell really bring that idea back from America? Then a couple of years ago a friend brought me a copy of the American version of Homes and Gardens. In the back of the magazine was a cookery section featuring puddings from famous American restaurants, and there was Blum’s Coffee Toffee Pie, named after a restaurant in Hollywood.
If you’d like to make classic Banoffi Pie, my original recipe is available…to read here to download here
A version of this article appeared in the Guardian on Saturday 25th March 2006