The first week of March is extremely exciting for people like me, that is co-owner of a British café and market, albeit in Florida. I am ready to make British Pie Week international so in the spirit of transatlantic relations, I did some research and traced the history of the pie. Let’s not be piqued that neither Brits nor Americans were the inventors of the western world’s first street food, we have reinvented that wheel perfectly. For all of us, our story begins long ago.
Beef & Guinness Pies at Sealantro
Egyptians have been credited with inventing beer but it looks like they might have been responsible for the concept of a “pie and pint,” a common British source of nourishment at one’s local pub. Evidence of early sweet pastry crusts have been found on the tomb walls of Pharoah Ramesses II (ruled 1304 to 1237 BC), while a recipe for chicken pie surfaced on a writing tablet before 2000 BC.
References to pies are made in ancient Greek literature around the fifth century BC, but it is the Romans who took pie making to the next level, as only the Italians could.
The Romans first used pastry to keep baked meats and fowl from drying out. The pastry wasn’t intended to be eaten in this case, but a richer pastry was common for small pasties that contained eggs or little birds. Pie case recipes appeared in the 1st-century Roman cookbook Apicius.
Once more, the Romans were on to a good thing. As the Empire spread across Europe, so did pie cooking. Fillings were upgraded to different types of meat, and even seafood, based on local availability.
Fast forward to Medieval times and pies had definitely become a thing. Fillings at this point included “…beef, lamb, wild duck, magpie, pigeon – spiced with pepper, currants or dates.” The Roman habit of using pastry as a vessel to cook the filling was commonplace. Since most homes didn’t have convection ovens, or ovens for that matter, it was commonplace to cook the pastry over the fire, or for the home cook to take their pie to the local baker.
POP QUIZ #1: What was the name given to pies in early Medieval recipes? Coffyn. Yes, these pies had straight, sealed sides and a top. Coffyn meant basket or box.
By the 14th century, the pie was firmly entrenched in Britain, and while the Crusaders’ marauding in the Middle East was far from politically correct, the religious righteous returned with new pie filling ideas – rabbits, frogs, crows, and pigeons. (There’s a pattern here – invade a region of the world, enslave and slay the population, but bring back pie recipes…). Within the next hundred years, pies contained all kinds of birds, apart from song birds which were protected by Royal Law. Apparently peacock pie was featured at King Henry VI’s coronation in 1429…
This leads us to POP QUIZ #2. Where did the expressions “eat crow” and “four and 20 blackbirds” originate? Yup, they were popular pie fillings in Tudor times.
But what about fruit pies? These started to appear in the 15th century. Fillings included custard and dried fruit. Fresh fruit wasn’t widely used until the price of sugar dropped in the 16th century; fruit pies until that point were called tarts and did not contain sugar. In the late 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I was served cherry pie. This is the first record of fresh fruit pie. Apple pie was first referenced in 1589 by the poet R. Green.
Good Queen Beth’s reign also saw a “line extension” of pie fillings (probably due to all the marauding and slaying again), including “Red Deer Venison, Wild Boar, Gammons of Bacon, Swans, Elkes, Porpus and such like.”
Then along came the Puritans who, in an effort to curtail fun completely, banned mince pie eating as a frivolous activity. Good job Oliver Cromwell isn’t around today… The ban was lifted with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Meanwhile pie making had literally ascended to new heights with pies becoming huge elaborate affairs. In the 17th century, Ben Johnson compared a skilled pie cook to a fortification builder as he cited one who made “citadels of curious fowl and fish” and “ramparts of immortal crusts.”
At this point, the Pilgrim fathers and mothers settled in the New World and brought with them their pie recipes as Romans and Crusaders had before them. I’ll save the story of pies in North America for Part II.
Today the most popular pie fillings in Britain are steak, cheese and onion, steak and kidney, steak and ale, chicken and mushroom, minced (ground) beef and onion, shepherd’s pie, and pork pie. We have all of those at Sealantro British Café and Market in Vero Beach, Florida. Don’t worry, we won’t try to tempt you with peacock, porpose or magpie fillings.
Jayne Withers Clifford is the author of Mile High & Healthy: The Frequent Travelers Roadmap to Eating, Energy, Exercise, and a Balanced Life (Story Farm, 2016). Hailing from northern England, she is a staunch pie fan. That said, her Floridian husband, Michael Clifford, loves British pies and, as Sealantro’s chef, is an avid British pie maker. His sausage rolls are awesome too.