The History of Meat Pies and My Inspired 14th Century Chicken, Bacon, and Fennel Pie

I know you are probably thinking… what history or interest is there in a meat pie? The answer may surprise you.

Meat pies, often associated today with traditional British fair, dates to the dawn of time. Meat pies were consumed by all the early civilizations; the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Each civilization would change and adapt meat pies with their customs, cooking techniques, and available resources. The fat, a key ingredient in both cooking and pastry making, was mainly olive oil, as the olive grows in abundance in warmer southern climates. Ancient cultures would use available tools to grind grains into a fine powder to produce flour for pastries that may or may not have been edible. A tablet dating back to the Sumerian period (2000 bc) depicted a version of a chicken pie. The Egyptians ate meat pies that resembled a French galette, which often included nuts, honey, and fruit into a dough (think bread like dough). Images of the Egyptian pies were located on the walls of Ramses III (1186 to 1155 BC) tomb walls. These loose forms of pastry dishes were also adapted for Egyptian sailors to provide nourishment on their long trips. The pastry was hard and could last throughout their voyage. This pastry concept continued for centuries, most notably this was how the English Pilgrims survived the long trip across the North Atlantic to America (pastry was called Hardtack). Greeks would wrap meat with a flour and water paste which would preserve the juices within the crust during the cooking process. The plays of Aristophanes (5th century BC) hints at fruit pastries; however, the favored sweet fruit pies dId not become popular until the 16th century in America. The Romans, influenced by the Greeks, preferred their meat pies, called secundae mensea, to be sweeter. The sweet dish shows up in the ancient Roman agricultural book, De Agricultura, written by Cato the Elder. Pastry was not always consumed; instead, it was used as a container that prevented food from drying out.

The name "pie" does not even appear until the 14th century (or as they called it in medieval times, “pye”), and it is believed to be in reference to the Eurasian bird, magpies (maggie pie/mag pie) which collects assorted items for their round nests. Though the word "pye" was first used in 1303, it does not become popular for another 60 years.

Meat pies are commonplace in medieval cooking, however not always for eating. It would depend on the class of the consumer and event being held or celebrated. The lower class would eat every bite of the pie, including the crust which was often not appetizing. The pastry was meant as a vessel for cooking and transporting rather than a flaky delicious part of the pie. The thick pie crust was even coined the name “coffin” and would takes hours to cook in large clay pots or hearthstones. In fact, the word coffin is used for this type of food preparation before it is used as a burial vessel. The hard pastry would seal the contents from the open air, and preserve the food for long times, despite not having refrigeration. The thick, uneaten crust would also be crushed and reused as a thickener. Unlike the warmer climates of early civilizations where olives grew, colder climates used suet, lard or butter as fat and filled the shells with meat such as beef, lamb, duck, pigeon, spices, currants, or dates. The choice of fillings would also depend on the classes. Lower classes would use root vegetables, pork, or poorer cuts of meat, while the upper classes would use more expensive meats that were often hunted on their estates.

The upper class would almost never eat the pastry and in some cases not even the pie. The dish would become an item of entertainment and amazement. During Charles V (1364-1380) reign in France his chefs would turn pies into what was referred to as a “soteltie” or “subtilty.” The Sotelites were pies turned into elaborate sculptures that were meant to disguise the food to look like something else. Thought the diners could have nibbled on these food sculptures, they were more like an act or a distraction until the next course was available. The nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence” gives a glimmer into these events. The lyrics include “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.” Well, the chefs did not bake 24 live blackbirds in a pie, instead live birds were placed into the hard pastry and as a way of entertaining guests. The crust was cut open in front of the diners and the birds would fly out of the pastry in song (otherwise known as screaming and running for their lives). The birds were not the only victim to these encasements. For an event for King Charles I’s and his wife, the “court dwarf” Jeffrey Hudson was dressed as a knight and popped out of the pie as it was presented to the King and his Queen. The Duke of Burgundy, in 1454, reportedly encased 24 musicians and instruments in pie crust for the Feast of the Pheasant. Think about that for a moment.

You can see why pies were at almost every dinner table and feast, not only was the food preserved, but it also came with it’s own cooking vessel. Recipes at the time were mostly captured by chefs of the Royal and other High Brow families, so we can mostly only get a glimpse of what they were eating, which was the more expensive meats, ingredients, and elaborate displays. In the cooking manuscripts captured at the time (for example Richard II/A Forme of Cury) countless “pyes” are listed which would include duck, pigeon, chicken, pork, beef, veal, along with the bold spices that entered Europe at the time through the spice trade. In addition to the grand scale displayed by the Royals, hand pies also are valued by the travelers and the working class. Hand pies were an easy way to contain food in a form suitable for a person who will spend long days walking by horse or foot.

By 1620, when the “Strangers and Saints“ set sail for America on the Mayflower, the recipes and techniques for pies went with them. Pastries would tend to be difficult to eat initially, even Thomas Jefferson continued to refer to pie shells as coffins however by introducing wheat flour and lard to the home cook, the dough became lighter and edible. Every part of the new country was adopting and adapting pies to their cultures and customs. The south would make sweet potato pies, the northeast would gather the abundance of wild grown blueberries and strawberries for their sweet pies, while the pioneers of the west would make pies into whatever they could get their hands on in the 1700s. Pioneer women knew that forming food in this fashion, the evening’s dinner could handle the diverse temperatures of whatever cooking element they had available. Even the first American President had a favorite, George Washington enjoyed his wife’s Sweetbread pie in his Mount Vernon, Virginia home (as noted in the Martha Washington Historic Cookbook).

With the introduction of sugar in America, most meat pies phased out of popularity to the sweet pies that are often lovingly served at family dinners, state fairs, and holidays. However, meat pies continue to be commonplace in Great Britain, and of course the Cornish pastie is one of the most well-known (and one of my favorites). The savory handheld meat pie with its distinctive Cornish pastry dough, was a favorite among the minors and working class, and today it is protected. The Cornish pastie was granted PGI (protected geographical indication) in Europe in 2011, which means you cannot call a dish “Cornish pasties” if it is not made in Cornwall, England. The hand pie continues in other cultures as well, consider the turnover, empanadas, and calzone. Anything that is easy to transport and consume, made with local flavors and customs.

The inspiration for this dish comes from a 14 century German recipe called King Chicken. Though I am unable to verify that this dish was made for the King, the name would certainly give you the impression it was. The original dish grilled chicken chopped it up into bite sizes, and then combined with eggs, ground ginger, anise, and saffron and then baked in a shell. This recipe, or concept, spread around Europe, making its way into England. By 1747 English cookbook author Hannah Glasse, as well as many other cookbooks before and after her, made their own version of chicken and egg pie.

Original Recipe:

Take young grilled chickens; chop them up in little bite-sized pieces. Take fresh eggs, break them, mix them with ground ginger and a little anise, pour this into a solid mortar, which should be hot. Sprinkle the chickens with the same spices you add to the eggs. Put the chickens into a mortar, add saffron, salt to taste, and keep them by the fire. Let them bake at an even temperature with some lard, and serve them whole. They are called king's chicken. Source [Daz buoch von guoter spise, Germany 14C

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