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Edible histories: pie

Categories: History of food

Live birds, gunpowder smoke and Melton Mowbrays: the remarkable history of pie

The British adore their pies. But like many great institutions in the most acquisitive of nations, our pies had their roots somewhere else. Legend has it that it was the ancient Egyptians who first enjoyed something resembling a pie, though it took those clever Greeks to create a pastry from flour and water.

The Romans took up the challenge, creating a range of sweet and savoury pastries including one called placenta, which presumably tasted better than it sounded. In 43AD, the Romans decided to take an extended holiday in Britain and soon these isles were floor-to-ceiling with straight roads, sophisticated plumbing—and pies.

According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the word pie, as it relates to food, can be traced back to 1303. It also states that the word was well-known and popular by 1362, as confirmed by Chaucer who found time to mention pies in his Canterbury Tales later that century.

Master cooks
The Forme of Cury, written at the end of the 14th century by the “master cooks” of Richard II, includes a recipe for “chastletes”, which were small pastry castles filled with pork or almonds and coloured with saffron or sandalwood. “Take and make a foyle of good past with a roller of a foot brode,” they instructed. That’s roughly medieval for “make foot long sheets of pastry as thin as paper”.

Historians are divided over whether medieval pastry was intended to be eaten. These pies, often called “coffins” or “coffyns”—the word then meant a basket or box—held assorted meats or fish and sauces. The pastry crust served as the cooking receptacle and may have been several inches thick, to withstand many hours of baking. It could then be used as both the serving vessel and storage container.

Pies held a universal appeal in Britain and were enjoyed by peasants and kings alike. They could be simple—A Boke of Kokery (c. 1440) contains a recipe for “custarde lumbarde”, an open-pie affair of marrow, dates and prunes covered with a sweet and spicy egg and milk sauce—but lavish pies formed part of the entertainment at the best banquets.

Large and unwieldy
According to food writer Christine Baumgarthuber: “They made their pies large and unwieldy and painted them brightly with pigments derived from lead oxide, metallic mercury mixed with the ‘pisse of a young child’, and arsenic mingled with hare bile and buried under a dung heap for five days.” Tasty.

Henry VIII had them rolling in the aisles when he gave King Francis I of France a pie filled with live birds. Anything and anyone might burst from a pie. In 1626, a seven-year-old dwarf called Jeffrey Hudson emerged from one served to Charles I and his wife Henrietta Maria at a banquet in Rutland. Hudson so delighted the royal couple that they made him a permanent member of their household.

Occasionally the fun and games bordered on the dangerous. Robert May penned The Accomplisht Cook in 1660, describing spectacular pastry dishes to be served at grand banquets. Imagine a pastry ship of war, exchanging rapid fire down the table with a pastry-castle, fitted with battlements and drawbridges.

Jumping frogs
Once the gunpowder smoke clears, guests gaze upon a life-sized pastry stag, oozing claret from a wound. Then several pies are opened to free countless jumping frogs and live birds which causing the “Ladies to skip and shreek”. That’s provided said ladies haven’t been blown to smithereens.

Medieval pies tended to be savoury—sweet pies don’t appear with any regularity until the 16th century, when sugar imports began to arrive from the West and East Indies. Queen Elizabeth’s wealthier subjects enjoyed pies filled heavily with sweetened meat, fruit and vegetables, while the lady herself loved pies of candied orange peel and was rumoured to have completely black teeth.

The growth of the middle class during the 18th century brought an increasing demand for books designed to save the lady of the house from the tedious duty of instructing her kitchen maids. Hannah Glasse wrote The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy in 1747.

French tricks
When she wasn’t having a pop at French chefs and all their “French tricks”, Glasse was giving simple instructions for a range of pastry crusts, including a standing crust for great pies, a dipping crust and puff-paste (puff pastry).

Whereas guests at medieval banquets had loved the mystery of what a pie might contain, the Victorian imagination became wildly suspicious. Pie sales surely took a hit after the publication in 1846-7 of the Victorian penny dreadful, The String of Pearls, in which the main protagonist Sweeney Todd dispatches his victims to Mrs Lovett, who bakes their flesh into meat pies and sells them to unsuspecting customers at her pie shop.

There was nothing sinister about Mrs Beeton’s pies. The Book of Household Management appeared in 1861 containing more than 2,000 recipes, and instructions for middle class housewives on how to please their husbands. “I have always thought,” writes Mrs Beeton, “that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife’s badly-cooked dinners and untidy ways.”

Pie men
London's working class also consumed pastry with gusto. In 1851, social investigator and journalist Henry Mayhew published London Labour and the London Poor, revealing how pie men travelled the streets visiting taverns, summer fairs and the races.

It was common practice to toss a penny for the pie. If the pie man won the toss, he received the penny and handed nothing over, but if the customer won he would keep both pie and penny. By mid-century, however, the itinerant pie man’s existence was under threat from the growing number of eel, pie and mash houses in London.

Pies even had a role to play during the Second World War. Francis Latry, chef de cuisine at The Savoy, created the Lord Woolton Pie—named after the minister of food—which was a cheap and adaptable vegetarian dish at a time when there were shortages and rationing of meat.

The artisan pie
Recent years have witnessed the championing of the artisan pie. In 2009 the EU declared Melton Mowbray a protected geographical indication (PGI), giving its pork pies the same legal status as champagne. In 2011 Cornish pasties were granted the same status, meaning that no pasty prepared outside Cornwall can be described as Cornish.

In March 2012 came pastygate, after the Chancellor George Osborne revealed his intention to place a 20 per cent VAT charge on hot pasties, but was forced by the sheer vehemence of public outcry to quickly row back on this pledge. This nation takes its pies and pasties very seriously.