A brief history of pies
Swot up on the pastry packets of perfection for Pie Week!
Pies. A staple of British cuisine for ages. I assume. Despite consuming a large amount of them every year, it turns out I don't know that much about pies. So pull up a pew and pin back your ears for some pie pointers.
A dish through the ages
"A pie is a baked dish which is usually made of a pastry dough casing that contains a filling of various sweet or savoury ingredients." According to Wikipedia that is the definition of a pie. And it's pretty accurate although it is open to interpretation, but we'll get to that in a bit. Where do pies come from? The word "pie" is thought to come from the bird, the magpie, a "bird known for collecting odds and ends in its nest"; based off of the idea that Medieval pies were also a collection of many different animal meats, including chickens, crows, pigeons and rabbits. But the origin of pies goes further back still and likely originates from when we first figured out baking and processing cereals. Once we'd cracked making flour and then pastry and bread it was only a matter of time until we started pairing that with meat. Until then if you were to eat on a boat or on a journey you'd have a live larder with you. And that's hardly space efficient.
Generally speaking, pies developed in a variety of historic societies and peoples as a cooking method and as a storing method of meat. Early pie prototypes were put together by the Egyptians, as a round layer of pastry with honey inside, with versions of this being found in the tomb of the Pharaoh Ramesses II, who ruled from 1304 to 1237 BC. Equally, sometime before 2000 BC, a recipe for chicken pie was written on a tablet in Sumer, the ancient civilisation in then Mesopotamia.
Beware of Greeks bringing pies
The Greeks are thought to be the first people to refine the production of pies, and the generation of a stable pastry and recognised the difference between a baker and a pie maker as the two cuisines differed from the addition of fat to the mix to make pastry. And then in traditional Roman style, they looked at what the Greeks had and stole it. The Romans made a plain pastry of flour, oil, and water to cover meats and fowls which were baked, thus keeping in the juices. However they wouldn't eat the pastry, seeing it as purely a means of keeping their meat moist. Several Roman cookbooks that have been unearthed have contained recipes for pies, and variants there of. And as the Roman empire spread it brought its pie making knowledge with it. So alongside the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, the Romans also gave us pies.
It is around this time that pies start to evolve and diverge to form individual dishes of their own like the Cornish Pasty. Pie evolution continued on in parallel to the development of cookware. As reusable earthenware pots were developed the construction of pies also changed, and from that the "pot pie" was developed featuring a simple pastry lid over a typically meat based filling. Another off-shoot of the pie was it's festive cousin, the mince pie. References to this christmas crumblies (really struggling with the alliteration here) appear around the early 13th Century as the Crusaders return from beating Christianity into the poor and unsuspecting folk of the Middle East, pausing only to pince their fine fruits and spices too. It is around this time that pies start to get quite fancy and "Bake-Off-ish". The 14th century French chef Taillevent instructed bakers to "crenelate" (a wall with battlements on it) pie shells and "reinforce them so that they can support the meat"; one of his pies was high enough that it resembled a model of a castle, an illusion enhanced by miniature banners for the nobles at the event.
I'm sourcing photos for this article right before tea time, this isn't helping my hankerings for helpings of pie.
"Four and 20 Blackbirds baked in a pie"
The act of baking birds into pies was another medieval making and as song birds at the time were a delicacy and protected by Royal Law it was only the most elite who could enjoy them. At the coronation of eight-year-old English King Henry VI (1422–1461) in 1429, "Partrich" and "Pecok enhakill" were served, consisting supposedly of cooked peacock mounted in its skin on a peacock-filled pie. The idioms "eat crow" and "four and 20 blackbirds" are sayings from the era when crow and blackbirds were eaten in pies. Cooked birds were frequently placed by European royal cooks on top of a large pie to identify its contents, leading to its later adaptation in pre-Victorian times as a porcelain ornament to release of steam and identify a good pie.
Around the 15th Century, sweet pies became far more common place in the pastry piazza although they mostly consisted of dried fruit as the sugar needed to cook with fresh fruit was expensive and inaccessible to most. The first fruit pie is recorded in the late 16th century, when Queen Elizabeth I was served cherry pie (Ed; Good choice there!). During the Puritan era of Oliver Cromwell, some say that mince pie eating was banned as a "frivolous activity" for 16 years, so mince pie making and eating became an underground activity; the ban was lifted in 1660, with the Restoration of the monarchy.
Pies to Plymouth with the Pilgrims
The Pilgrim fathers and early settlers (one family of which shares my surname, and thought they'd found the Pacific Ocean, only to realise that it was just a lake, and to this day it is still called Billington lake, anyway, back to the story) brought their pie recipes with them to America, adapting to the ingredients and techniques to the New World and the ingredients available as well as the cooking methods possible. Settlers' recipes were originally for English-style meat pies while the newcomers used the fruits and berries that they were familiar with from Europe, they also began incorporating North American vegetables and game that they were not familiar with, helped along with guidance from Indigenous people that they kindly repaid with the flu. Settlers favoured pies over bread because pies required less flour and did not require a brick bread oven, and because any mixture of ingredients could be added to pies to stretch their meager provisions, rather like students making soup out of anything...
The American pie continued to adapt over time as various other colonial groups arrived in the New World. The Pennsylvania Dutch brought with them a more aromatic, spiced, and less-sweet style of pie-making; while the French brought the approach of making pie with butter and a range of tart, galette and pâté (how terribly French!) recipes. Swedish immigrants in the States brought recipes for fish pies and berry pies, and Finnish immigrants brought their recipes for pasties and meat pies. Soon the place was awash with people applying an egg was to their pies for a prize winning patina. From here pies didn't really change much until the present day where they are still in the top pickings for pastry pundits. According to a 2019 YouGov survey Cottage Pie and Shepherd's pie were ranked as top tier dishes with a 70-79% support in the public eye. Here's the full results;
Poor performance from the pork pie if you ask me! (Source; YouGov)
I could go on but the breadth of pie varieties currently in existence is as extensive as my knowledge of the original Mini (Ed: is that a lot? JB: a concerning amount). We've barely scratched the flakey surface of pies. We haven't mentioned cold pies like the classic Pork Pie, or the potato topped ones, stargazy pie, tarts, toppings, and pastry types. What about pizzas? Are they a pie or are they something unto themselves? Nonetheless, go forth dear reader and indulge in a pie or two and revel in pie week.
What pies do you like? What do you have with your pies, savory or sweet? Let me know in the comments below.