A short history of pies

February is Pie Month in the United States, and Pie Week (I am not sure if this reduced British period is significant) in the United Kingdom is the first week of March (although sadly the pie awards have been delayed until later in the year) so now seems a good time to have a look at The Pie…. where it came from, at least four millennia ago, and where it’s off to now.

There’s no doubt that interest in pies is growing. The results of a recent Google search speak for themselves.

And it’s not surprising.

 A pie is supremely convenient. They have always been good for travelling, whether a sealed cold-pastry type pie taken on a long sea voyage, or a Cornish pasty taken out to the fields or mine, or a dainty apple and chicken pie packed for a hunting trip or smart picnic.

It’s also convenient because it marries at least two of the required elements – almost always comforting carbohydrate – pastry, potatoes, or a sort of breadcrumb crumble – and usually some protein: meat, fish or chicken; but it could also be vegetables.

Although in times such as these, of Covid and lockdowns, we seek comfort we also have a weather eye on expanding waistlines and on health in general. Pies, already well-balanced (as long as you don’t throw in chips as well), are raising their game and becoming lighter and more nutritious.

The first recorded pie – a chicken pie made in Mesopotamia

There is some talk of meat pies being eaten in the Neolithic period some time around 6000 BC. But the first pie we officially know of was a chicken pie which was recorded on a tablet, dated at about 2000 BC, found at Sumer – one of the earliest known civilisations. Sumer was in Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq). There’s a good chance it was washed down with a wholesome pint of beer, as another tablet found there (this one dated 3100-3000 BC) records the allocation of beer.

history of pies
King of Ur, drinking his beer… waiting for his chicken pie…

The father of pies – Ramesses II

The father of pies was probably Rameses II. This was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh who was the inspiration for the poem Ozymandias. In the poem, a traveller sees a couple of huge stone legs – all that remain of a gigantic statue of Rameses – sticking out of the sand in the middle of a vast desert. The traveller mocks the pharaoh for his arrogance in supposing that the power and splendour of his empire should stand the test of time.

If the poet (Percy Shelley) had done a bit more research he would have discovered that Rameses II left a legacy which has been built on, and developed to an astonishing extent, the wide and varied family of pies we know today. However, he did, by all accounts, by which we mean written on tomb walls, start small. Rameses’ pies had a grain-based base and were topped with honey.

ramses ii the father of pies
Mummy of Ramesses II, the father of pies

How the ancient Greeks contributed – the invention of pastry

We know that the ancient Greeks distinguished between bakers (men, mostly, who made bread and other edibles without using fat); and pastry cooks (who used fat, and thus turned dough into pastry). Both are skilled professions, and what distinguishes them (aside from  the fat aspect) is gluten. Gluten helps to make dough stronger, and thereby gives it more structure, making it perfect for bread, but not helpful for pastry. Using fat to coat each particle of flour prevents too much water getting to the particles, and reduces the effect of gluten. On the other hand, too little gluten results in collapse, and, critically, air bubbles are not trapped. So a pastry-chef in both ancient and modern Europe is performing a difficult balancing act, mostly be ensuring the right amount of fat and water is used. Access to wheat is essential as wheat is the only grain with sufficient gluten to perform these miracles on a regular basis. Of course, you can make bread with rye, spelt etc, but it tends to be heavy. In the case of rye, its hardiness was part of its attraction when it came to pastry – it made a strong crust in which to cook precious meat and preserve its juices.

In any case, the Greeks certainly ate pies. In The Acharnians, one of Aristophanes’ plays (first produced in 425 BC), one of the characters, Dikaiopolis, talks about his freshly honeyed pastries. In another play, Lysistrata, Aristophanes describes women preparing honey-cakes for the dead. It seems likely that both these also contained almonds, poppy seeds and black pepper, as well as honey.

Philoxenus of Cythera describes these cakes in a bit more detail, saying they are “mixed with safflower, toasted, wheat-oat-white-chickpea-little thistle-little-sesame-honey-mouthful of everything, with a honey rim”

Although there are many references throughout the internet to ancient Greek pies filled with fruit, I can find no primary sources to verify this.

Almond and honey baklava…. similar to the original ancient Greek pies

Pies on the move, west – then north, where they worked out how to roll the pastry

Of course, all the Greeks’ good ideas were plagiarised by the Romans, and the same thing happened to Greek pies, which were taken over by the Romans who used olive oil as their fat of choice and who used the pastry more as a means to seal in flavour and juices rather than as something intended to be eaten – just as well, oil makes a rather mealy pastry (rather than coating the flour particles, the oil is absorbed). As well as containing poultry, birds and pork, their pies also included seafood such as mussels and clams.

However, they developed the Greek honey pastries into a sort of pie which was also very popular called placenta (which in those days simply meant ‘flat and slab-like’). This was a kind of cheesecake, with honey and fragrant bay leaves on a pastry base. Sometimes these cakes were offered to the gods (in which case it was called a libum, a form of bloodless sacrifice, so a good option). Cato the Elder, writing around 160 BC gives a recipe for it in his De Agri Cultura (‘on agriculture’). If you go, today, to Romania or the Ukraine, and order a Plăcintă, you will be served something very similar.

Once in Roman hands, pies spread everywhere via the road system. Olive trees don’t grow in colder climes, so further north they used lard. The result was a pastry which could be rolled and moulded and was supposedly a lot nicer to eat. However, our Neolithic Meat Pie is made with olive oil pastry, and it’s very good indeed, albeit it’s a bit crumbly for rolling. Those in the north had an additional advantage – copious forests provided firewood for ovens.

history of pies
Could she be bringing in a pie?

Finally, pies make it to Britain – where did they get their name?

In Britain we also have the Romans to thank not just for pies themselves, but also for the name. ‘Pica’ means magpie in Latin, and the whole joy of pies is that you can throw pretty much anything into them, much like the miscellany of things which the thieving birds collect.

Pies reach Britain, France and The Netherlands , and all three nations add apples, and other fruit

The first fruit pie we know of was a pear pie, documented in 1379 by Guillaume Tirel, aka Taillevent in his volume, Le Vaindier.

“Put upright in paste and fill the hollow with sugar; for three big pears about a quarter of a pound of sugar, well covered and glazed with eggs and saffron then cook them.”

Then we get the first mention of apple pie in The Forme of Cury, a fourteenth century (circa 1390) collection of English recipes compiled by Richard II’s head chef.

The book instructs,

“For To Make Tartys In Applis. Tak gode Applys and gode Spycis and Figys and reysons and Perys and wan they are wel ybrayed colourd wyth Safroun wel and do yt in a cofyn and do yt forth to bake wel.”

So it was made with apples, pears, figs and raisins, mixed with spices (probably mace and cloves), and baked in a ‘cofyn’. In those days the word ‘cofyn’ simply meant a box or basket – it didn’t develop its ghoulish specialist modern definition until much later. The mediaeval culinary cofyn continued the Roman usage as a container and sealer-in of goodness, rather than as something to be eaten – often the pastry was so hard and thick that it had to be cracked to get it open.

On the other side of the channel in The Netherlands, Een notabel boecxken van cokeryen (‘a notable little cookery book’) was published in 1514 by Thomas van der Noot. Van der Noot probably wrote the book as well, and his version of apple pie is a bit more involved and mixes the soft apples with cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, mace and powdered sugar (at that time sugar was scarce and treated as a spice). The pie is encased in pastry which is intended to be eaten.

In 1545 the first edition of a Proper New Booke of Cokerye was published, written for Englishwomen running their own households. This also included a recipe for apple pie, instructing, “ceason your apples with Sinamon  ginger and suger inough. Then put them into your coffyn and laie halfe a disshe of butter aboue them and close your coffyn and so bake them.” The reader is instructed to make pastry, “thynne and tender as ye maye”.

These pies clearly smelt absolutely heavenly. In his poem, Menaphon, published in 1589, the poet Robert Greene has Doron, proffering a nice piece of female flattery:

“Carmela deare, even as the golden ball

That Venus got, such are thy goodly eyes,

When cherries juice is jumbled therewithall,

Thy breath is like the steeme of apple pies.”

So this apple pie might have had some cherry juice added to it.

Thereafter, there is evidence of pie makers experimenting with other kinds of fruit and indeed jam. Some food historians think that the original Backwell pudding (not necessarily from Bakewell) dates back to medieval times. This is a puff pastry pie filled with a bottom layer of jam (often raspberry) and then a more substantial layer of a sort of cakey-almond-custard.

bakewell pudding
The original backwell pudding… not necessarily made in Bakewell… experimented with fruit jam.

Gervase Markham’s The English Huswife includes a recipe for pumpkin pie….and then came oranges.

In Janet Clarkson’s excellent and thoroughly researched Pie: A Global History she tells us that Queen Elizabelh I was given an orangeado pie in 1600. The recipe is in a book entitled The Good Huswife’s Handmaid for Cookerie in her Kitchen, published in 1597. Orangeado was a luxury food item – oranges preserved in syrup, and an orangeado pie was one with a pastry case filled with layers of orangeado and apples.

history of pies
A kitchen in the 1580s painted by Vincenzo Campi

Apple pie popularity continued apace, with Jane Austin writing to her sister, Cassandra, on 17 October 1815, telling her, “Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness.”

“Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness.”

What’s in the pie?

Nevertheless, medieval pies were mostly savoury, containing meat or poultry, but also rabbit, frog, and various birds, some live, including the famous ‘four and twenty blackbirds’.

At Henry VI’s coronation feast they served pies of partridge and peacock which guests could distinguish by the general (for European royal cooks) custom of a sample cooked bird being placed on top of the pie. This practice is the origin of the Victorian pie bird (or pie funnel), a ceramic device used to support the pastry and supply a vent to allow the steam to escape. Follow this link for more on pie birds.

history of pies
In this painting by Jan Brueghel I and Peter Paul Rubens you can see various pies with birds, or simply identifying feathers, on top to identify the contents.

But not all pies were intended to be kept and stored. The original mince pie is middle-eastern in origin, and brought back in the thirteenth century by crusaders. They contained minced meat (shredded mutton) and thirteen fruits and spices, representing Christ and his twelve apostles.

history of pies
Crusaders conquering Constantinople in the twelfth century – knowledge of mince pies travelled back with them across the sea.

Later, a kind of cheesecake appears in A Forme of Cury, written by Richard II’s head chef. He writes of a Tart de Bry which uses ‘chese ruayn’ – with ruayn meaning it was a soft, autumn cheese. As sugar was scarce in those days, this is probably a very early form of quiche.

The key to the different types of pie was the pastry. Again, Gervase Markham is helpful on this subject. He describes the type made from rye paste, hot water and a little butter as being good for a long-lasting cofyn; then there is ‘a good white crust, somewhat thick made of wheat flour with hot water or mutton broth and generous amounts of butter to go with hearty stew-type fillings; and then there is ‘melting short paste’, which is made out of flour dried in a warm over, and then mixed carefully with eggs, butter and cold water, and which could be rolled thin and used around delicate foods such as chicken or deer…. and also fruit.

The perfectly practical pastry pie

However, pies weren’t just for grandees. One of the main advantages of the pastry pie was its transportability. Because the sealed pastry prevented air from getting to the meat, these pies remained edible for months while at the same time not taking up much room, and sailors found this very useful.

Labourers in fields and mines also found the edible lunchbox aspect of the pie very convenient, hence the development of the Cornish pasty. The ribbed edge acts as a handle and wives would mark the pies with their husbands’ initials.

cornish pasty
Traditional Cornish pasty, with an integral pastry ‘handle’.

Of course, the aristocracy also found pies handy, both for picnics, and, especially in England, to sustain them through all kinds of lengthy sporting events. John Mollard, in his The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined, published in 1802, and written to refine the meals of the English upper classes, gives a recipe for a ‘puff for a journey’, essentially a sort of venison pasty.

history of pies
Illustration from the fifteenth century The Hunting Book of Gaston Phoebus

What happened then? North America and Australia

England’s pies went with the Pilgrim fathers to north America, and then, thanks to a whole range of immigrants from different countries, other fillings followed – fish pies from Scandinavia for example. Then, thanks to the sugar plantations in the southern states and the development of refineries, Americans developed quite a taste for sweet, fruit pies. All Thanksgiving pies , for example, are sweet.

There is one rather charming story of Mrs Fisher, an ex-slave, who together with her husband, went to live in San Francisco. The couple was illiterate, but the locals rallied round to help, and in 1881 she published her recipe for coconut pie.

Mrs Fisher and her coconut pie

On the other hand, the convicts and sailors who made up a lot of the population in Australia, weren’t well off and they prized meat pies – so the savoury pie took hold down under. In 1972 the Lord Mayor Elect of Sydney said that Australia was built on “meat pies, sausages and galvanised iron”.

Clarkson points out that the national pie competitions in both the USA and Australia are very revealing: there is not one savoury pie included in the USA competition; and there is not one sweet pie in the Australian one. Interestingly, the British Pie Awards includes 23 classes of pie including “hot and cold, sweet and savoury pies”.

Branching out, away from pastry

We first hear of cottage pie in 1791, and about sixty years later people also started talking about shepherds’ pie, initially interchangeably whether the meat was beef or lamb. According to a 2019 YouGov survey cottage pie and shepherds’ pie were ranked as top tier dishes with a 70-79% support in the public eye.

These days fish pie is also popularly topped with mashed potato.

But as the search continues for healthier food chefs are developing other kinds of topping – breadcrumbs, nuts, and much else.

These days pie bottoms also can be made of non-pastry – think of the digestive biscuit base which grace the bottoms of most cheesecakes these days. We also include an intriguing base for a type of quiche, or pizza which is made of cauliflower.

A sort of quiche, but with a base made of cauliflower
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