Pie – A definition : the filling and baking of sweet (fruits, nuts, cheese) or savoury (meat, fish, eggs, cheese) ingredients and spices in casings composed of flour, fat, and water
In that, the pie is one of the most simple and complex of all foods. What began as a means of cooking meats over an open fire without a pot or kettle, evolved over the centuries into the ultimate fast food! The portable pie (pasty, turnover, empanadas, pierogi, calzones . . .) were enjoyed by working classes and sold by street vendors the world over. Indeed, a McDonald’s could, under the above definition, be classed as a pie!
But I believe it is not the current age, though the pie has never been more ubiquitous and varied than it is today, that represents the golden age, but the pie of two centuries ago. The interregnum shall we say between the complex pastry ‘mansions’ of the Tudors and Stuarts and the current high tech, premium quality products of today. Why? Because originally the culinary heights achieved were for a very limited audience.
The best products were produced only by those with sufficient money, the finest ingredients and the means to employ the best people to prepare them.
The main method of spreading culinary expertise was through the training of staff in the great houses. A good, honest cook was the jewel in the crown of any aspiring household. History has shown us that the art of the cook was highly prized with high wages and even a formal portrait.
So how to bridge the gap between, effectively, the rich and the poor but by teaching. Time was when education was the prerogative of the wealthy. The poor needed only sufficient educating as daily living required. It is estimated that in Britain in the 16th century more than 70% of the population were illiterate.
The lower classes were also limited in their pie making by the expense of building and fuelling a good oven. A pie can be cooked over an open fire very effectively but the true art only became feasible with the development of the enclosed oven and a steady temperature.
The village Smith could provide a basic oven for the village by virtue of the fact that the Smithy had a means of creating a basic oven alongside the furnace. Indeed the Smithy was an early form of communal bake-house. But it was the communication of new ideas that was key.
New, cleaner, refined fats and finer, softer flours gradually filtered onto the market, but being new and/or limited, they were only available to the top 10% of society who could afford such luxuries. It was only from the middle of the 16th century onwards, when actual recipes for pastry begin to appear, that a more standardised product could develop. The first recipe for something actually recognizable as puff pastry was published is in 1596.
Also around this time the face of education began to change. The gentrified land-owners were beginning to realise that the better the level of education amongst the general population could give them a better class of servant and standard of work and general purpose schools began to appear. Though these were still primarily the preserve of the up and coming middle classes it provided a stepping stone for the poor to achieve higher standards of living than their parents and grandparents had ever had And that meant that the illiteracy rate began to decline. More and more people were learning basic reading and writing. But I’m digressing again! (I do wish you’d tell me when I go off on one like that!)
Recipe books had been around since before Tudor times but what use was a cookery book to somebody who couldn’t read? For me, the golden age of the pie came about in the late 17th and right through the 18th centuries when books began to become more commonplace and commerce was enhanced with better and faster supply routes. If one wished, one could travel from London to Paris in less than a week (currently about two hours)
17th and 18th century cooks also developed and introduced several new recipes, including brioche, Napoleons, cream puffs and eclairs! And the great Antoine Careme (1784-1833) is said to have elevated French pastry to a higher art-form than the Tudors had ever achieved while in Central and Eastern Europe, fine strudels and pastries evolved dramatically.
But it can be said that the pie truly arrived when it began to appear in the paintings and drawings of the Dutch masters.
So is the nature of success measured!