First things first: do you really need a pie bird or funnel?
And the answer is that they have two, very practical uses. Pie birds:
- act as an air vent (this will help prevent the filling from bubbling out
- help support the pastry and stop it sinking into the pie and becoming bogged down and soggy
These are both helpful, so, since you almost inevitably already have a pie funnel – why not use it?
However, instead of a pie bird, you can simple cut slits in the pastry. This will help the steam to escape, but it won’t give the support to the pastry.
How to use a pie bird
Most pie birds are ceramic or made of pottery: they’re robust about heat, and they won’t stain. It’s easiest to put the filling in first (or the bottom layer of pastry first, if it’s a double crust pie), then position the pie bird, then spread the pastry over the top. Push the pastry down gently so that the top of the pie bird emerges through it.
Leave the pie bird in the pie as you cut slices out to serve, until the point at which the bird is exposed from one side and is cool, and you can remove it easily.
You only need a pie bird for pies with pastry – not, for example, potato-topped pies like shepherds’ pie or cottage pie.
Where do you find a pie funnel and how much do they cost?
Yep – if you own an egg cup, you have a pie funnel (use it upside down). Or you can even use a cinnamon stick.
If you want one which looks the business it will only cost you three or four pounds/euros/dollars to buy (the traditional blackbird in the featured image cost £1.95 a few years ago). Sous Chef is selling them for £3.99.
If you want something a bit more special – an apple, a blueberry, a sheep…. Amazon is your friend and it will set you back about 15 spondoolies of one kind or another.
More special yet (not mass produced), search through Etsy – quite a number of potters make them. You will find anything from the charming to the fantastic, and the price varies enormously.
History of pie birds and funnels
In the middle ages chefs were often catering for the masses (the owner of the castle, his guests, and all his retainers) so pies were big and would contain more than one bird. There would be a selection of pies, so in order for the revellers to be able to tell what was inside, chefs would leave a cooked, reconstituted bird on top. Here you can see an example of how that worked in a painting by Jan Brueghel I & Peter Paul Rubens dated 1618.
Nevertheless, the very first pie funnels, were just that – small, cream-coloured ceramic funnels which came into use thanks to the Victorians. These were a bit too boringly functional however, so birds – after the tradition of the middle ages – were introduced.
Very popular were the blackbirds. These took off thanks to the well-known nursery rhyme Sing A Song Of Sixpence, where “when the pie was opened the birds began to sing… wasn’t that a dainty thing to set before the king?”. Just as today, meals were seen not just as an opportunity to fuel up, but also as a chance to meet friends (a ‘companion’ is simply someone you share (‘com’) bread (‘pan’) with, and a chance to be entertained. One way was to hide a surprise in a pie… it could be a young girl, or (on one occasion) a whole band… and it could also be live birds which were encased in the pastry (not cooked).
But the Victorians were mistaken to take the rhyme too literally. Historian Chris Roberts posits that the rhyme is all about Henry VIII and his first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Ann Boleyn. Ann Boleyn is the ‘maid’ hanging out the clothes, who has her nose snipped off (was beheaded) by a blackbird (representing the church).
In any case, once birds had been introduced it was a hop and a skip to chickens, fish, apples and blueberries… and from those on to more fanciful representations such as chefs, dogs, and, lately dragons.