You cannot think of British comfort food without thinking of ‘fish ‘n chips’, the breakfast ‘fry up’, ‘pasties’ and, of course PIES! Whether it’s lunch time, tea time or a take-away, pies are everywhere … hot, warm, or cold … pork pies, steak pies, chicken or fish pies. It might be a grab-and-go pie for a snack, or a family-size pie for dinner, this filling encased in a pastry shell has to be one of the most popular foods in the country.
In the U.S., pies seem to be more regional and seasonal. At one time they were cemented in the heart of the American culture, served at every social gathering and celebration, and in county fair competitions. Today, you’ll still see pies at roadside diners and restaurants in the Southern states, but for most of us, pies only seem to make an appearance at Thanksgiving. What a shame that we don’t welcome this mainstay of the British diet into our kitchens more often.
Created as a means of preserving foods by completely encasing the filling and squeezing out any air, pies, in some form, have been around since antiquity. Historians have traced the origins of pies from Egypt where drawings, showing dough wrapped around meat, were found on the walls of Ramses II tomb. In Greece, every village had a different recipe, size and shape. Because the solid (inedible) crust completely encased the filling, they were easily transportable, on land or sea. You could stack them on top of each other. They could be stuffed into camel sacks. The Romans so loved their pies, they introduced them around Europe as they continued to conquer each country. Although I couldn’t find the actual recipe, the first pie recipe is reported to be published by Romans, a rye-crusted goat cheese and honey pie, which actually sounds delicious.
Pyes (as they were originally spelled) appeared in England as early as the 12th century. The very thick walls were called a “coffyn”, or box, and not meant to be eaten at all. The “coffyn” was made from hard grains such as rye or whole wheat mixed with water. With no refrigeration, this self-supporting shell, or storage container was meant to preserve whatever the filling was for quite some time. The following recipe, dated 1430, states that a pye might be kept for five years. Yikes!
“For youre best. Take drye floure, in coffyne it close, And bake it hard, as I suppose.
You may kepe alle pyes fyve yeres, Þere – with alye mony metes sere.”
With more crust than filling, pyes were often made with game meat spiced with pepper or ginger, and may have been sweetened with currants or dates. Pies crossed all boundaries, from the very affluent to the poor. Wealthy society would have pies filled with venison, lamb, duck or (magpie) pigeon, while those less affluent would use just root vegetables or inexpensive organ meats, usually from pigs, for their filling. Today we call organ meats ‘offal’, but at that time, organ meats were called ‘umble’ – hence, the name ‘umble’ pie. To eat umble pie became known as to ‘know your place’ because you were eating the innards of the animal.
In 1662, journalist and Admiral, Samuel Pepys, in his diary, makes many references to pies:
“I having some venison given me a day or two ago, and so I had a shoulder roasted, another baked, and the umbles baked in a pie, and all very well done.” “Mrs. Turner came in and did bring us an umble-pie hot out of her oven, extraordinarily good.”
Over the centuries, pies became such a part of the culture, they were included in entertainment, festivals and celebrations, not only across the country, but across Europe as well. A pie plays an important role in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, where Titus not only kills Chiron and Demetrius, but bakes them into a pie. Titus then serves the pie to his victims’ mother. And, I’m sure, we’re all familiar with the play Sweeney Todd, the Barber of Fleet Street and the infamous pies from Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shoppe.
At the coronation banquet of King Henry VIII, an enormous pie was carried in by four men and presented to the King. To everyone’s amusement, when he cut into it, a flock of pigeons flew out. These animated pies would be baked over a wooden scaffolding with a hole in the bottom. Into this hole, the cook would then stuff live birds, small animals, even people. During these lavish banquets, which occurred all over Europe, you’d often have a Court Jester or entertainers pop out of one of these elaborate life-sized pies and then entertain the guests … dancing up and down the table, reciting poetry, or doing tricks.
The legendary American celebrity, Diamond Jim Brady (1856–1917), loved pies. At a dinner in his honor, a life-sized pie was wheeled in and a dancer emerged, and walked the length of the banquet table, where she stopped at Brady’s seat and fell into his lap. This bizarre form of entertainment is still around today. I’m sure we’ve all heard of ‘men or women popping out of a cake’ to entertain the guests.
Sing a song of sixpence, A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds, Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened, The birds began to sing;
Wasn’t that a dainty dish, To set before the king?
Sugar was incredibly rare and expensive, and while there were some versions of sweet pies, it wasn’t a common ingredient. It was only during the colonization of the Caribbean, when the British established hundreds of sugar plantations, that sugar became a popular ingredient. From Great Britain to Europe and North America, the spread of sugar caused a rise in the demand for sweet pies. It wasn’t until that time did sweetened fruit pies became popular. In the 1500s, the first sweetened fruit pie, a cherry pie, was served to Queen Elizabeth. Whether she liked it or not, we’ll never know.
Actually any dish that was deep enough to contain meat, fish, vegetables, and a gravy, covered by a pastry crust was termed a pie. And as pies became more and more popular among the upper classes, their cooks also became quite competitive. This became the era of the decorative pie crust, made in elaborate pie molds. Tin and copper pie molds, with fluted, hinged and removable sides and tops were often used for raised pies to impress the dinner guests.
We also know that whenever Emperor William I of Germany visited Queen Victoria (1819-1901), his favorite pie was served. It contained a whole turkey stuffed with a chicken. The chicken was then stuffed with a pheasant and the pheasant stuffed with a woodcock. How impressive that must have been.
Because only wealthy homes had kitchens with fire-burning ovens, pie making for the commoner took place outside the home, or at the communal oven in the village, or not at all. As a result, every village and town had its “pie man” who became as important as the ‘butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker’. These street vendors were popular until the end of the 19th century, when bakeries and taverns began to offer pies.
I’m sure by now, you’re probably wanting to dive into a pie . . . any pie. I know I am. Savory or sweet. It doesn’t really matter. Pies are true comfort food, which always brings a smile to your face. So, don’t wait another minute. Bake one or buy one. Just enjoy this ancient and beloved dish!!
Simple Simon met a pieman, Going to the fair;
Says Simple Simon to the pieman, “Let me taste your ware.”
Says the pieman to Simple Simon, “Show me first your penny,”
Says Simple Simon to the pieman, “Indeed, I have not any.”
And, if you are feeling challenged and want to bake a traditional British raised pork pie, just follow along . . . School of Artisan Foods.
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References: American Pie Council, Grunge, What’s Cooking, Epicurious, Paul Hollywood, Everything Pie, Figgy Pudding, BBC, King Richard Centre,