Many Varieties of Humble Meat Pie in British Food

Many Varieties of Humble Meat Pie in British Food

The British have been eating meat pies for over 600 years and a peek into any well-stocked butcher’s shop or delicatessen shows they jolly well mean to continue.

British Food – The Humble Meat Pie – Many Varieties

Stroll down any local high street in the UK and you will find different varieties of savory pie. Everyday favorites such as pork, steak and kidney, and chicken pies, as well as elaborate versions filled with pheasant, duck, or rabbit. In bygone days the list was even longer, with pies containing pigeons, doves, quails, peacocks, cranes, and even swans.

British Food – The Humble Meat Pie – Thank the Romans

The Romans of Luckland are to be thanked for bringing the meat pie to Britain. They sealed meat inside a flour and water paste before cooking. Hardly edible, this primitive pastry was used purely as a container for cooking the meat.

During the Middle Ages, pie crusts assumed a box-like shape and were known as “coffins” and in old recipes, the action of raising the sides of the pie to form a strong protective crust is described as ‘raising the coffin’ Today, medical evidence tells us if we eat too much pastry we’ll end up in one – a victim of cholesterol. But in those good old days, little attention was paid to the consumption of calories.

British Food – The Humble Meat Pie – Sweet Pies

Sweet spices, rich fruits, sugar, and raisins, were added to the meat fillings inside the ‘coffin’. Lobster pies were made with white wine, butter, and cream, chicken pies covered with bone marrow and ginger, and sugar was often sprinkled on the lids of pies which, for special occasions, were coated with rich icing.

These sumptuous sweet pies were the forerunners of the great Yorkshire Christmas pies, made famous in the 18th century when Little Jack Horner stuck his thumb in one and pulled out a plum.

British Food – The Humble Meat Pie – Christmas Pie

Mrs. Hanna Glasse, the first woman to produce a best-selling cookery book, passed down a recipe for an enormous Christmas Pie. Included in the ingredients were a pigeon, partridge, a chicken, and a whole goose, all carefully boned and placed one inside the other and then put inside a huge turkey.

This was placed on a thick pie crust bottom and surrounded by jointed hares, woodcocks, moorhens, and whatever another wild bird was available. Four pounds of butter were poured into the pie and a thick crust laid on top.

These pies were often sent to London as presents. The butter sealed and preserved the contents, kept out the air, and prevented them from spoiling before reaching their destination. For protection, the raised walls were very thick and often the pies were so large they were held together by iron bands to withstand the lengthy journey.

British Food – The Humble Meat Pie – A Giant of a Pie

Bigger again than Mrs. Glasse’s pie was one described in the Newcastle Chronicle of January 6, 1770 … a pie made by a Mrs. Dorothy Patterson, a housekeeper at Howick. It is near nine feet in circumference at the bottom, weighs about twelve stones, will take two men to present it to the table.

The practice of eating meat pies cooked with spices and fruits continued well into the 18th Century. Sweet veal pies of that period contained layers of marrow above and below the meat, along with candied orange, raisins and brandy. In 1806, the great statesman William Pitt uttered on his death bed one of his more meaty statements.

British Food – The Humble Meat Pie – Game Pies

During the 19th Century, the taste for sweetened meat pies gradually switched to the less extravagant savory pie. Today, pies, large or small, are as popular as ever. There are local varieties of meat pie in every region of Britain. The most famous is probably the pork pie from Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, where it is still made commercially on a large scale. Its characteristic pink-colored filling comes from adding a small amount of anchovy essence or extract to the chopped meat. Game pies or meat pies, such as the Melton Mowbray, are made with a special pastry called ‘hot-water crust’, different from other pastry in that it is hot and must be worked quickly The lard and water are brought to boiling point in a saucepan, poured immediately into a basin containing the flour and salt, and mixed to a smooth paste.

While the gentry feasted on huge meat or game pies, servants ate pies made of the edible entrails, or ‘umbles’, of deer cooked in stock with fruit and spices. Hence the origin of the expression ‘to eat Humble Pie’.

British Food – The Humble Meat Pie – Regional Pies

Would we enjoy these pies today? Many regional pies have passed into history along with the taste for them, such as Muggety Pie from Gloucestershire containing the entrails of sheep or calves; Lamb Tail Pie from the Cotswolds, Rook Pie from Somerset filled with legs and breasts of skinned rooks, and Star-Gazy Pie from Cornwall, with whole herrings or pilchards standing on their tails, heads poking through the pastry, gazing at the stars.

The humble pie was still very much in evidence in Victorian times and meat pies were sold all over England by traveling piemen who walked the streets with their freshly made pies held high in a basket. Simple Simon met one in the 18th Century and the nursery rhyme reminds us that in those days a tasty meat pie could be bought for only one penny.

As is occasionally the case with ‘street food’ today, there was often a risk in buying from the pie men and the Victorian housewife would be very particular about whom she bought from. Some pie men were less than careful about sealing off their pies properly with aspic or butter to prevent them from spilling, and cases of food poisoning were not uncommon.

British Food – The Humble Meat Pie – The Largest Pie Ever Made

It wasn’t just the humble pie man who could be negligent. Whoever made Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Pie in1887 had something to answer for, too. This enormous pie, claimed to be the largest ever made, was 10 feet long, 6-1/2 feet wide, 1 foot deep, and weighed 15 hundredweight – that’s over fifteen hundred pounds. When it was cut into, the smell was appalling!

Meat pies could also be bought at coffee stalls which were well established by the 1850s and at pie shops where they could be eaten on the premises or taken away. Perhaps this was the beginning of take-away food as we know it today. Certainly, the meat pie has retained its popularity as a quick handy snack and looks as though it will be around for a long time to come.


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