During my writing of this blog it has been necessary at times to dig into the origins of some of the means and methods by which items we now take for granted came into being. In this instance, the humble pie! There has been much recent debate about what is and what is not a pie. Does it have to have pastry top and bottom? When does a pie become a flan? Is a pasty really a pie in a different guise? Is a Banoffee Pie really a pie?
Historically, the pie came about in Medieval times with cooks attempting to produce a means of cooking and storing food. But how, and this may seem an obvious question, do you produce a delicate crusted confection without an oven? Or when the nearest thing you have to an oven is a closed box in a fire-pit or alongside the hearth? The answer is, of course, that you don’t. The first pies where an attempt at ‘fast food’
The flour available was little more than ground wheat, no refinement beyond a little sieving or winnowing and therefore made a coarse, grey paste at the best of times. But this did not matter. Nobody knew what a pie was anyway. Be that as it may, a paste was made of the coarse grain and hot water to release the gluten into which the cook would plunge his fist and the dough ‘raised’ around his/her forearm.
The arm would then be removed, the shell filled with a mixture of meat, fat and spices and the whole tightly sealed with a lid of the same coarse dough. A small ‘vent’ or hole would be cut so that steam could escape but little could enter. The ‘pie’ and I use the term very loosely here, would then be buried in a fire pit or a closed box beside the fire and left to cook. Once cooked, the now rock hard pastry is in no condition to be considered food by any stretch of the imagination. It has become a pot. A crude one but nevertheless, a pot.
Once cooked, the ‘pastry’ can be cracked and the contents consumed directly from it. The soft, well relatively anyway, inner wall of the pot would be scraped out and be pounded to produce a thickener for soups and broths. Alternatively the fat and juices would be poured from the ‘pot’ to be replaced with clarified butter that would, in effect seal the meat from the air, and as such the contents could be stored for weeks, if not months.
The Middle Ages were a time of conspicuous wealth and grinding poverty and the banqueting table was a demonstration of the victory of plenty over dearth. Lavish hospitality oiled the wheels of both commerce and politics. The upper strata of society needed to be wooed with extravagant demonstrations of wasteful generosity.
As the technology in building ovens improved, there are records around this period of one at Hampton Court that was twelve feet wide, the pie could be cooked near to but not actually touched by fire. This, and advances in flour refining and butters led to a finer, more palatable crust. The Tudor period saw the pie advance in leaps and bounds as the demand for ever more complex patterns and designs for the grand tables grew. Tudor ‘standing pies’ became more and more ornate and were prized as finely wrought, and edible, works of art. They would depict such subjects as dress, heraldry, victory of arms or more simply, their contents.
But the true golden era of the pie was yet to come!