A History of Pies
Pies have been with us for centuries. There’s a claim that the Egyptians and Romans had pies, maybe not but they most likely had pasties, square shaped flaps of pastry folded over a filling and crimped.
Our earliest reference to pies goes back to the middle ages, Chaucer wrote a recipe for apple pie in 1381. The cook book written for the chefs of King Richard II in the late 14th century had numerous recipes for coffyn’s as pies were often called in earlier days, presumably because of their shape. These pies were often made from pastry which was just a thick paste (hence the origin of the word) of flour and water. It was used as a container to cook meat and vegetables together in the oven after the bread had been baked. Once cooked the contents would be served up on a dish and the pastry case thrown away. Alternatively the gravy would have been drained and eaten and then clarified butter poured in through the hole to seal the pie, rather like potted meat. This then, in the days before refrigeration, would have been used to store the contents for eating at a later date.
In the medieval banquet the discovery of the hot water crust pastry led to pies becoming the centre piece of the banquet. They were often made using elaborate figurative moulds, glazed and adorned, occasionally with a stuffed animal or bird to indicate its contents, swan pie being one of the most elaborate.
In the hierarchical society of the middle ages, the lord of the manor seated at the top table would be served the prime cuts of meat such as venison. The extremely lower orders seated on benches right at the back of the room would be served the entrails of the deer cooked with vegetables in a pie. The offal of a deer is known as umble hence the term to eat ‘humble pie’, the word humble being erroneously replacing the proper word umble.
As ovens became more common items in the kitchens of ordinary people so pies became a staple item of the British diet. The discovery of the potato and its spread to Europe in the 16th and later centuries led to its inclusion in the main meal of the day for most families. Pie and mashed potato became more widespread and was a convenient way for many inns and alehouses to serve a hot meal at relatively short notice. The pies were made with whatever local ingredients were around, eels being a particular delicacy in certain areas. Pie, mash and hot liquor (gravy) became the staple diet of many a workman seeking a meal from his lodgings.
The discovery of spices around the time of the crusades led to pies being made from meat and also from added dried fruit such as raisins and spices to give a sweet pie eaten at the best feasts. Mince pies were said to be on the menu for the coronation banquet of King Henry V in 1413. Little by little less meat and more sweet contents were contained in the pies, suet eventually replacing the minced meat until the need for vegetarian mince pies led to any connection with meat being dropped. Originally eaten all year round, mince pies became more associated with Christmas through the Christmas Pie which was made using the same ingredients as the traditional minced pie.
Pork pies were a convenient way of using and preserving the less desirous cuts of meat from the family pig which was usually slaughtered during the winter. In many parts of the country the meat was cured and when needed made into pies which gives these pies their pink colour inside. In Melton Mowbray a lot of pigs were reared fed on the whey from local Stilton Cheese production. These were killed in the winter and the fresh meat, uncured, used directly in the local pie which probably evolved from a pasty. Being fresh meat which is then roasted gives the pie a grey colour inside, the colour of uncured roast pork. These pies were made by the housewife, rather than the baker, and so were made without the hoops which would have been available to the baker but not the housewife. Instead she would have hand raised the pie around a bottle, later a wooden dolly, to make the pie case and when filled with the course chopped pork and a little salt and pepper would have been sealed and baked in the oven. The unsupported pie would have sagged while baking giving rise to the traditional bow-shaped Melton Mowbray Pork Pie. When Melton Mowbray became the capital of hunting in the late 18th early 19th century, the local pie was adopted by the hunting aristocracy and taken with them whilst out riding. The pie was strengthened by using a hot water crust recipe for the pastry. Hot bone stock jelly would have been added to the pie after baking to help preserve the contents by driving out any air inside and also by sterilising the contents. It would have also made the pie more solid and so suitable for packing in the pocket whilst jumping the hedges and ditches on the typical hunt. This unique origin of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie was recognised by the European Union when protected name status (PGI) was granted to the pie in 2009.
Today the British eat around a billion pounds worth of pies each year. They come in all shapes and sizes with all manner of fillings. This is why the humble pie has come to be recognised as distinctly British and why it is celebrated in the British Pie Awards and our own PieFest.