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?
(Traditional English Nursery Rhyme)
After all the posts on social media, I expect that most of my readers are aware of International Pi Day, which occurred on March 14 — or 3/14. This annual observance celebrates the mathematical constant of pi. While often abbreviated as 3.14, pi has an infinite number of digits beyond the decimal point, starting with 3.141592653.
Last year’s Pi Day was a special one to celebrate since it was 3/14/15, matching perfectly the first numbers past the decimal point of pi. Last year, hardcore math fans even started celebrating the day at exactly 9:26 a.m. and 53 seconds. This year, math enthusiasts celebrated what they are calling “Rounded Pi Day” since rounding pi to the ten-thousandth (that is four numbers past the decimal point) comes out to 3.1416, matching this year’s date — March 14, 2016.
So, what does all this have to do with the Georgian Era? Certainly, the Georgian Era had its share of mathematicians, but pi was a well-established value long before the Hanoverians came to power in England. Around 150 AD, Greek-Roman scientist Ptolemy, in his Almagest, gave a value for π of 3.1416, which he may have obtained from Archimedes or from Apollonius of Perga (Boyer, 1968). What all this talk of pi did do,however, was to get me thinking of another type of pi – pye or pie – a sweet or savory filling encased in a pastry crust!
For hundreds of years, the purpose of a pastry shell was mainly to serve as a baking dish, storage container, and serving vessel, and these were often actually too hard to eat. By the beginning of the Georgian Era, however, other types of pies were becoming common. Before taking an in-depth look at the various types of pies, we need to define a few terms we will be using.
Free-Standing Pies – This group includes all self-supporting crusts where no baking dish or pie pan is used.
Tarts – While the word “tart” is used interchangeably with “pie” in many sources, I am using it here specifically to mean a filled thin-walled crust lining a dish, with no top crust.
Pies – Again, many period sources fail to differentiate between “pie” and “tart”. I use the word “pie” here to mean a filled thin-walled crust lining a dish, and covered with a top crust.
Pasties – “Pasties” are those that do not support their own weight, and where no baking dish or pie pan is used.
Types of Pastry Crusts or “Pastes”
Before we can talk about the various types of pies available in the Georgian Era, we need to learn a bit about the most important element; the thing that makes a pie a pie. That is the crust or “paste.” In the ancient Mediterranean, the Romans, Greeks and Phoenicians all had filo-style pastries in their culinary traditions. There is also strong evidence that Egyptians produced pastry-like confections. They had professional bakers that surely had the skills to do so, and had needed materials like flour, oil, and honey.
Although variations certainly existed, one can divide period pastry crusts into three basic categories: standing pastes, puff pastes, and short pastes.
Standing Pastes – are the oldest form of pastry crusts, dating back several hundreds of years. They were used to make pies called “coffins” or “coffyns,” a word derived from the Old French term meaning “basket.” (Mayhew & Skeat, 1888)
Puff Pastes – While traditionally attributed to the French painter and cook Claude Gelée, who lived in the 17th century, references appear before the 17th century, indicating a history that originated long before as thin sheets of dough spread with olive oil. This then came through Muslim Spain and changed to laminated dough with layers of butter, perhaps in Italy or Germany. Culinary educator Robert Wemischner states that the first printed recipe was published in François Pierre La Varenne’s “Pastissier francois” in 1653. (Wemischner, 2015) The earliest English language reference that I could find to Puff Paste comes from the book “The Crown & Glory of Christianity: Or Holiness, the Only Way to Happiness” published in 1662
During the Georgian Era, the most common use for this type of paste was in savory dishes, although an occasional recipe suggested their use as top crusts for fruit pies. The cook would line pie pan or baking dish with puff paste before filling the dish with meat or vegetables. Often, a top crust of puff paste was added to the dish before baking. Some period recipes suggested putting the dish’s ingredients directly into the pan and then topping it with a puff paste.
Short Pastes (or Short Crusts) – the pastry used to make the flaky crust in traditional “American” apple pie. Short Paste likely comes from the same roots as Puff Paste and may well be of the same approximate age. The earliest English print reference I could find describing how to make a Short Paste or Short Crust was in a 1717 cookbook entitled “The Accomplished Housekeeper and Universal Cook.” (Williams, 1717) Period cookbooks recommend their use in fruit tarts and pies.
Short pastes could be folded into free-form pasties (pronounced PAST-eez). While the original recipes called for venison, beef and mutton pasty recipes began appearing in the mid to late 18th century. Eventually, they became popular as mobile meals for the working class.
Coffins or Standing Pies
The first pies, called “coffins” or “coffyns” (the word actually meant a basket or box) were savory meat pies with the crusts or pastry being tall, straight-sided with sealed-on floors and lids. These pies held assorted meats and sauce components and baked more like a modern casserole with no pan since the crust formed the cooking vessel.
While these could be served immediately, they could also be used to store and keep the contents for future use. Once baked in a standing crust, the juices, drained through a hole in the top crust, were replaced with melted butter or rendered mutton fat to seal the dish’s contents from the open air. The dish could then be stored in the larder for days or even weeks, and brought out, reheated, and served later. The dish would be reheated, the fat poured off, and a gravy of gelatinous broth added back through the hole in the top crust to replace moisture in the baked meat.
While short pastes and puff pastes are kept as cool as possible while they are being made, standing pastes go in the opposite direction on the temperature scale. Ingredients are relatively the same, but the fat is melted in boiling water and then the flour added to that. The resultant dough has a similar texture to “Play-Dough.” The cook can then roll the paste out into sheets, allow it to cool, and then use it to build large freestanding crusts, or press and manipulate it into individual-size cups.
Before the Georgian era, Surprise pies (pyes) were popular at banquets for entertainment. The nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence – four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie,” is one such pie. The rhyme says, “When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing. Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the King.” When to birds flew out singing the guest were amazed. But how were such pies made with live things, such as bird, in them?
The English translated version of Epulario (The Italian Banquet), published in 1598, gives the following recipe for making a surprise pie with live birds:
To Make Pie That the Birds May Be Alive In them
and Flie Out When It Is Cut Up
Make the coffin of a great pie or pastry, in the bottome thereof make a hole as big as your fist, or bigger if you will, let the sides of the coffin bee somwhat higher then ordinary pies, which done put it full of flower and bake it, and being baked, open the hole in the bottome, and take out the flower. Then having a pie of the bigness of the hole in the bottome of the coffin aforesaid, you shal put it into the coffin, withall put into the said coffin round about the aforesaid pie as many small live birds as the empty coffin will hold, besides the pie aforesaid. And this is to be at such time as you send the pie to the table, and set before the guests: where uncovering or cutting up the lid of the great pie, all the birds will flie out, which is to delight and pleasure shew to the company. And because they shall not bee altogether mocked, you shall cut open the small pie, and in this sort you may make many others, the like you may do with a tart. (Warren, 2016)
Frequently, standing crusts were large and ornate, exhibiting elaborate decorations. Within the Georgian Era, the citizens of the small Yorkshire village of Denby Dale showed a skill for making giant standing crust pies. The first was made in 1788 to celebrate the recovery of King George III from one of his bouts of madness and the second in 1815, to celebrate Wellington’s victory at Waterloo. In 1826, a Mr. Roberts, victualler in Sheffield made one composed of rabbits, veal, and pork which, when weighed before being carried to the oven, came in at 15 stone 10 pounds (220 pounds)! (Clarkson, 2009)
A tart is a baked dish consisting of a filling over a pastry base with an open top not covered with pastry. Thus, the pumpkin pie, which is traditional at the American Thanksgiving table, in Georgian terms, would be a Pumpkin Tart!
In the medieval period, open-crust pastry (no tops or lids) were known as “traps” and this later morphed into “Tarts” Early medieval tarts generally had meat fillings, but later ones were often based on fruit and custard. The word “tart,” first attested in English in 1805, is borrowed from the French, itself first attested in 1605. (Simpson & Weiner, 1989) The pastry is usually a short crust pastry and the filling may be sweet or savory, though modern tarts are usually fruit-based, sometimes with custard.
Savory tarts include Quiche, a family of savory tarts with a mostly custard filling including Quiche, often considered a French dish. However, custards in pastry were known in English cuisine at least as early as the 14th century. Recipes for custards, containing meat or fish and fruit, and baked in pastry are referred to Crustardes of flessh and Crustade in the 14th-century cookbook The Forme of Cury and in 15th-century cookbooks as well. (Pegge, 1780) (Austin, 1888) This continued into the 18th century as shown by this recipe from Beauvilliers’ 1827 cookbook, The Art of French Cooking.
Marrow Pasty – (Tourte d la Moelle)
Take about a quarter of a pound of beef marrow ; pick it, and put it upon the fire ; when it is a little hot, break it, and put it into frangipane; take a tart-pan, the size wanted ; cover it with paste lightly puffed ; put in frangipane an inch thick, and leave round it paste that will make a band of the thickness of an inch, to suit the size of the tart for a border ; lay the band round ; make the ends meet as nicely as possible ; glaze it, and form any design upon it ; give it rather a hot oven ; when done, dust fine sugar over it, glaze, and serve it hot. (Beauvilliers, 1827)
These are individual pies, filled with meats and vegetables cooked together, and often weigh about two pounds or more. The earliest known reference to the pasty attributes it to the Cornish. Between 1150 to 1190, Chretien de Troyes, French poet, wrote several Arthurian romances for the Countess of Champagne. In one of them, Erec and Enide, completed around 1170, he mentions pasties:
Next Guivret opened a chest and took out two pasties. “my friend,” says he, “now try a little of these cold pasties And you shall drink wine mixed with water….”
Both Guivret and Erec came from various parts of what is Cornwall today.
Shakespeare also mentions the dish in his Merry Wives of Windsor (1598).
It is made by placing an uncooked filling, typically meat and vegetables, on one-half of a flat short crust pastry circle, folding the pastry in half to wrap the filling in a semicircle and crimping the curved edge to form a seal before baking.
The English word “pasty” derives from Medieval French – O.Fr. paste from V.Lat. pastata (Harper, 2016) – for a pie, filled with venison, salmon or other meat, vegetables or cheese, baked without a dish. Pasties have been mentioned in cookbooks throughout the ages. For example, the earliest version of Le Viandier (Old French) has been dated to around 1300 and has several pasty recipes (Taillevent, 1988), and the 1393 Le Menagier de Paris has recipes for pasté with venison, veal, beef, or mutton. (Power, 1928)
Other early references to pasties include a 13th-century charter, granted by Henry III (1207–1272), to the town of Great Yarmouth.
The town is bound to send to the sheriffs of Norwich every year one hundred herrings, baked in twenty four pasties, which the sheriffs are to deliver to the lord of the manor of East Carlton who is then to convey them to the King. (Nuttall, 1840)
In 1465, the 2500 guests at the installation feast of George Neville, archbishop of York and chancellor of England consumed a total 4000 cold and 1500 hot venison pasties, which made up only a small part of what was served. (Hibbert, 1987)
In his diaries written in the mid 17th-century, Samuel Pepys refers to his consumption of pasties, for instance, “dined at Sir W. Pen’s … on a damned venison pasty, that stunk like a devil.” (Pepys, 2015)
In contrast to its earlier place among the wealthy, during the 17th and 18th centuries, the pasty became popular with working people in Cornwall, where tin miners and others adopted it due to its unique shape, forming a complete meal that they could carry easily and eat without cutlery.
Mince Meat Pie
Today there is nothing remotely savory about the mince-pie. However, this was not always the case. Like so many dishes, the mince-pie has evolved over the centuries. We recognize them as the quintessential Christmas confection, packed with citrusy dried fruit plumped with brandy, spiked with spices, and wrapped in crumbly pastry.
Our mince pies undoubtedly have medieval origins, although we would not immediately recognize them. Many medieval recipes combine sweet and savory ingredients, and pies were no exception. Desserts as we know them did not really exist, so it was perfectly acceptable to use sweet ingredients in meat dishes.
Sweetness came courtesy of honey or dried fruits, since sugar was not generally available at this time. Along with spices such as saffron and ginger, dried fruits such as figs and dates were the preserve of the wealthy, since they had to be imported into the country. Liberal use of spices in your food was one way to show your peers just how much money you had.
The modern mince pie’s precursor went by several names. The historian John Brand claimed that in Elizabethan and Jacobean-era England, they were known as “minched” pies, (Brand, 1849) but other names include mutton pie, and starting in the following century, Christmas pie. Gervase Markham’s 1615 recipe recommends taking “a leg of mutton“, and cutting “the best of the flesh from the bone“, before adding mutton suet, pepper, salt, cloves, mace, currants, raisins, prunes, dates and orange peel. He also suggested that beef or veal might be used in place of mutton. (Markham, 1615)
Gervase Markham’s Minc’t Pie (1615)
Take a Legge of Mutton, and cut the best of the flesh from the bone, and parboyl it well then put to it three pound of the best Mutton suet & shred it very small; then spread it abroad, and fashion it with Salt Cloves and Mace: then put in good store of Currants, great Raisins and Prunes clean washed and picked a few Dates sliced, and some Orenge-pils sliced ; then being all well mixt together, put it into a coffin, or into divers coffins, and so bake them and when they are served up, open the lids and strow store of Sugar on the top of the meat and upon the lid. And in this sort you may also bake Beef or Veal, onely the Beef would not be parboyld, and the Veal will ask a double quantity of Suet.
As you can see, this pie was baked in a coffin but, by the end of the Georgian era, mince pies were beginning to be made in a smaller, family size, sometimes with a base of short crust and a top of puff paste. Thomas Webster, in his 1815 Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy lays out a recipe for mince meat:
Take two pounds of beef suet finely chopped and picked free from strings, two pounds of apples peeled and chopped small, two pounds of raisins stoned and chopped, two pounds of currants washed and thoroughly cleansed, one pound of good moist sugar ; boil three lemons, and, after pounding the rinds small, add them and the juice to the other ingredients ; chop small half a pound of candied citron and lemon peel, and work all these ingredients together with two wine-glasses of French brandy, and a little salt. Put tbem into a covered jar, which place in a cool spot, and the mince meat will keep for several weeks. Keep at the top of the jar some unchopped candied peel, and add a slice to each mince pie, when any are being made. Some prefer puff paste, others a short crust, for sheeting the pans. (Webster, 1815)
By the mid 19th-century, the mince-pie had acquired its modern taste. Cooks used a lot of beef suet (hard, grated fat from around the kidneys) to bolster the flavor and juiciness of their pies, though many recipes dropped the meat entirely.
The smell of a freshly baked pie cooling on the windowsill, or in the kitchen is a fond memory of many Americans. It has become such a national symbol of our food heritage that it coined a familiar phrase: “As American as apple pie.” However, the saying “as American as apple pie” is absurd, because apple pie is not very American at all. Apples were not native to North America. As far back as 328 BCE, Alexander the Great wrote of modern-day Kazakhstan’s “dwarfed apples,” and brought them back to Macedonia for cultivation. For thousands of years before American colonization, apples played a significant role in Asian and European cuisine.
According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America:
“The typical American pie made from uncooked apples, fat, sugar, and sweet spices mixed together and baked inside a closed pie shell descends from fifteenth-century English apple pies, which, while not quite the same, are similar enough that the relationship is unmistakable. By the end of the sixteenth century in England, apple pies were being made that are virtually identical to those made in America in the early twenty-first century. Apple pies came to America quite early. There are recipes for apple pie in both manuscript receipts and eighteenth-century English cookery books imported into the colonies.” (Smith, 2004)
By the late 14th century, apple tarts and pies were a common delicacy in England. In the early 1500s, Dutch bakers, who shared this passion, took the concept of the apple pie and pioneered the lattice-style crust we see today; over the course of the century, the pies became ubiquitous throughout France, Italy, and Germany.
In England, early apple pies were more like tarts with a custard-like apple filling. One of the best known of these, and one that eventually made the trip to the American colonies, was Marlborough Pudding. Various recipes for this apple pudding or apple tart appear in many English cookbooks throughout the Georgian era. What follows is the recipe from Amelia Simmons 1798 cookbook, American Cookery.
Take 12 spoons of stewed apples, 12 of wine, 12 of sugar, 12 of melted butter, and 12 of beaten eggs, a little cream, spice to your taste; lay in paste No. 3, in a deep dish; bake one hour and a quarter. (Simmons, 1798)
Only one type of apple — the malus, or “crabapple” — was native to North America and it was incredibly sour. The fruits are much smaller and more tart than the common apple (Malus domestica) but are suitable for jellies, preserves, and cider. It was not until the mid 1600s, through complex sea trade routes, that “edible” apples made their way to North America. Even then, they arrived in the form of trees that required extensive pollination to bear fruit. Because of this, the fruit did not flourish in North America until Europeans introduced the honeybee decades later.
To wrap this up, let us look at a recipe that Miss Simmons included in her cookbook that we might consider as close to a traditional Apple Pie today:
A Buttered Apple Pie
Pare, quarter and core tart apples, lay in paste No. 3; cover with the same; bake half an hour, when drawn, gently raise the top crust, add sugar, butter, cinnamon, mace, wine or rose-water (Simmons, 1798)
© Chuck Hudson 2016
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