The meat pie is misunderstood these days. We’ve seen it around in grocery marts, specialty bakery shops, or even the odd restaurant but we hesitate in our spending for it. Although we associate it with nostalgia, there are many reasons why not to eat them- it looks plain and doesn’t seem exciting like a dessert pie, the filling is concealed so we don’t know if it’s good or the pastry and meat filling is rather “heavy” to eat. Also, the pie is overshadowed by its cousin- the dessert pie. The the meat has been around for ages and persists because of cultural traditions. I want to reveal the allure of the meat pie by examining its development in history and looking at the regional varieties that exist today.
Before I begin, the word “pie” needs to be clarified. Paraphrasing from Janet Clarkson’s book Pie: A Global History, pies are classified by these set of “rules”:
1) Pies are made of pastry
2) Pies are baked in an oven
3) Pies are baked in a dish
4) Pies must have a bottom crust
5) Pies have a pastry that rises on the side to contain a filling
Looking into history, we can see how countless generations were satisfied in eating meat pie and its many variations. The earliest account dates around the Neolithic Age of 9500 BC. This early pie was a flat crusty galette made from grounded oat, wheat, rye, and barley and was filled with honey. It was baked over hot coals.
Around 1300 to 1200 BC, The pharaohs ate these primitive galettes which had fruits and nuts incorporated into the dough. The ancient Greeks elaborated that galette with a flour and paste wrapped around meat which sealed in the juices when cooked.
The Roman Empire of 1 to 2 BC assimilated Greek culture and its culinary delicacies. They enjoyed the primitive galette as a dessert and a meal. It was made with flour, water, and oil and filled it with meats, oysters, mussels, lampreys, and fish; the cover though was thrown away. Olive oil was plenty in that region and so it was the primary fat. Combined with the flour, the dough would be weak and slumped in appearance.
The meat pie as we know it took shape in Medieval Europe. It was used like a baking container so the majority of food was baked this way. The crust was extremely thick, making It useful as a carrying or storage container and a method to preserve food. However, it was inedible. The Lords and ladies would discard the top crust and eat only the meat and sauce inside. The crusts were most likely fed to the poor and the remaining container was used to recook the juices and have white bread added to make a newer dish
The baking method of these stiff pies were done in a kiln that was also used for firing clay. Meat too was baked there in wrapped leaves, clay, or dough to trap in the juices. This meat-wrapped dough was referred to as a ‘bakemete’.
The pie spread across Europe by the Crusades. And the meeting of pastry and pie occurred in Northern Europe. There was a thriving forest in that region and the inhabitants grew their wheat and reared their pigs and cattle. These conditions helped the people devise the pastry dough. Flour mixed with a fat that has a high melting and little water produces just enough gluten to make a light and flaky pastry. Butter has a low melting point, thus lard from pigs was the best choice of fat. The result was tall, thick, and upright pastry. Another advantage the Northerners had was the forest that provided fodder for the pigs and lots of fuel for long-hour baking.
The term “pie” came into usage around this time. Originally, these baked containers were called “coffyns” (meaning basket or box). The contents inside were filled with beef, lamb or duck. Song birds, a fine delicacy of the Royalty, were often cooked and placed on top of a pie to indicate the type of filling. Magpyes too were a common choice. According to legend the word ‘’pie’’ derived from the magpye because of the colourful and eclectic resemblance to the bird’s nest. Opened versions of a pie were called “traps” and its filling was considered the most important part.
The meat pie fillings eventually developed more than just having a large piece of meat with sauce, it included fruit, custards, sugar, minced and spiced meats.
The Renaissance in Italy encouraged the development of the arts and there were rich families willing to spend on the finer things in life. The wheat in the north was low in protein and low in gluten-forming. It was blended with butter (the choice of fat for the wealthy class) which produced a flaky and more tastier pastry. These doughs were light and malleable which would lead to more refined pastry items.
England differed. Butter was for the poor. The rich enjoyed lard which produced taller meat pies. But a closer step to raised crusts came with the invention of hot water pastry. This dough can be sculpted like clay and allow free-standing crusts. The English Pork pie of Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire of today utilises such dough. Wet fillings, stews, fruits, and custards were made possible to cook inside. Some other fillings were deer and birds.
The court life saw the possibilities in sculpting the pies into artistic pieces. There were shapes like a bird, castle, or a fish. One recipe books records a pastry sculpted castle with its central courtyard filled with different fillings. The pie also had some unique adornments. Lids were coloured with frost (sugar and rosewater) or endored with saffron, egg yolk, or real gold. The covers also would be replaced with a prebaked cover, carved as a Hearldic shield. In an open pie, Herbs and flowers or cut prebaked shapes of birds, beasts, flowers lay on the filling. And in some cases, sage stood on the walls of the pie.
In the rural households, a pie did not see such gaiety. After baking, its hole in the top crust was sealed with melted butter. It was the only convenient method to store some of their food. The baked pastry was made of rye flour and was tough and not eaten. The most important was the filling. A meat pie was actually kept for a whole year in storage and its thick crust made it possible to be sent long distances.
Many times the Church mandated the eating of the fish because it was thought that meat inflamed passions and encouraged sexual appetite. The fish pie became common because of the Pope’s decree; the fishing industry then prospered which in turn helped the navy and explorers thrive.
By the 18th Century, sugar was abundant because of the refineries and trade; the sweet and savory pie distinction would take root. Fruit was usually included in meat pies but with the advances of delicate pastry, it could be used as a primary ingredient. Sugar, though, was still used in meat pies.
Wheat was an important commodity. A typical English master’s home enjoyed a piecrust with the finest flour while the servants had the second milling of wheat, barley, or rye. But during a wheat shortage, the people wanted their pie so pottery makers designed a golden glazed dish with scalloped edges to resemble a pie crust.
The pie was part of life in the Victorian era. The Industrial Revolution mass produced pie moulds. The type of pie distinguished the social classes. Game pies and fish pies were available to those who had land and hunting rights and the poor and working class could only eat mutton from old sheep or beef pies from dairy or draft animals. Pigeon pies were available to people of high status because only the rich were able to raise pigeons for supply of meat in the winter months. In America however, pigeons were abundant and available to anybody with a rifle.
The pie declined because of social changes. The potato became more common and economically viable. The two World Wars of the Twentieth Century whisked men into the battlefront. Families could not sit together and enjoy the meat pie. Also, the second world war made Women enter the workforce and no longer became preoccupied with time-consuming household chores. Decades later, modern production found ways to create frozen pie shells. In 1951, the Swanson company made the first frozen chicken pot pie.
The meat pie has been essentially an English dish. That is not say that meat pies are not sold in other European countries but they are not really part of their cultural traditions. The European countries had other interests in baked goods.
Because England expanded its empire overseas, the migrants brought with them their heritage. In the 17th Century, pies made it into America and a century later, into Australia. These two countries would accompany England as the greatest pie-eating countries.
The Americans settlers viewed the pie as a sweet dish than a savory. Apples would be used mostly in their pies. The wheat crops were difficult to grow and only maize was successful. Wheat was scarce to the Americans and only became available when they conquered the West. By his time the Americans held steadfast to their traditions and the apple pie was a symbol for their pioneering spirit. The Americans became prolific in sweet pies because the land had so much fruit varieties. They developed a taste for bird pies. And by the 20th Century- the chicken pot pie (consisting of a cream-and- chicken based filling), the beef pot pie (filled with beef and vegetables), and the pork pie were some of the favorites to the Americans.
The Australians were convicts and marines living in a land that was good for wheat-growing and grazing. They seldom had the chance to eat meat back in Europe and saw it in the form of stolen meat pies. It’s no surprise that they would embrace the meat pie in their new world. New Zealand too were obsessed with meat pies, especially mutton.
Meat pies may not be at the forefront of the typical family meal but it still lives on. The US, England, and Australia hold annual pie contests in both sweet and savory categories. These countries also take pride in their regional dishes. In Canada, some notable meat pies exist. For example, The Cape Bretons have a Cape Breton Pork Pie which is actually a porkless pie whose tradition dates back to the Medieval ages of Europe, The Nova Scotians and Newfoundland & Labradorians have a Seal Flipper Pie comprised of seal parts from the seal hunt, and interesting enough, Quebec has the Tourtiere- a double crusted meat pie eaten on Christmas Eve. Meat pies have held on because of tradition and culture.
Some of the noteworthy meat recipes found in the British Isles are:
Scotch/Mutton/Shell Pie: This is a small, double-crust pie consisting of mutton (or another meat) and is spiced with pepper. It is baked in a hot water crust pastry (see below) that is inside a round, straight-sided tin and has an allowance of 1 cm space below the tin’s rim to allow for a topping of potatoes, baked beans, gravy, or an egg. They can be eaten by hand without a wrapping. Scotch Pies, as the name suggests, originated in Scotland but are sold in the UK and Canada. They are also sold at football games and has earned the nickname, “Football Pies”.
Stargazy Pie: This pie consists of fish with their heads poking out of the crust. During December 23, the inhabitants of the fishing village of Mousehole in Cornwall eat a Stargazy pie. It was made in honour of a local mythical hero who caught enough fish to feed his village.
Hare Pie: On Easter Monday, the village of Hallaton in Leicestershire enjoyed a Hare Pie that was provided by the local parson.
Steak and Kidney Pie: A British meat pie consisting of diced beef, diced kidney (ox, lamb, or pork), fried onion and brown gravy. The pastry used are Hot water crust or puff pastry. Meat and Kidneys were a common filling for centuries but the recipe’s name became known in the late nineteenth century.
Steak Pie: A British pie that is made from stewing steak and beef gravy. The Irish version, Steak and Guinness Pie, has a round steak and a Guinness Stout beer added with bacon and onions. The Scots refer to it as a Steak Pie Supper and adds salt and vinegar. The Scots usually buy it for New Year’s eve from a butcher.
Because England carried out the tradition of the meat pie, it is not surprising that the dish carried forward into the oversea colonies. And in that process, the meat pie adopted the local ingredients and resources that these new lands offered.:
Meat Pie (Australian and New Zealand): Australia and New Zealand have a meat pie dish that is considered as part of their national pride. It is a hand-size take out meal that essentially consists of mincemeat, chicken, seafood, crocodile with gravy; cheese, onions, and mushrooms. Settlers brought their traditional meat pies that soon adapted to the new land. Mutton was one of the first type of Australian pies. By 1800’s, it showed up in hotels, entertainment places, sporting events. The Australians were obsessed with the meat pies that they became mass produced before the 20th Century.
Tourtiere: This is a French Canadian meat pie that originated in Quebec, Canada around 1600. It is often served during Christmas Eve and New Years. It’s filling consists of diced pork, veal, or beef, salmon, rabbit, or game with garlic, onions, bread crumbs, Besides Quebec, Francophone families across Canada and New Englanders in the US are prone to keep this traditional pie.
The meat pies mentioned here are deep rooted in history, culture, and traditions. Because of my Asian heritage, I’ve never had the meat pie as part of my tradition. I mostly got them from supermarket. The chicken and beef pot pie were my favorite and only known meat pie. I’ve heard the names of the other pies in casual conversations but never ate them. Meat Pies are more than just a commodity in this fast-paced world. It is a nostalgic food. The meat pie evokes the imagery of a grandmother (who learned it from her mother) lovingly baking them for her family. It’s a food made from the “labor of love” because of its length in time to make. The enjoyment that people have when eating a pie is in essence the same enjoyment that they have with family and tradition.
Adapted from: http://www.canadianliving.com/food/cooking_school/tourtiere_recipe_and_instructions.php
Yield: 3 9-inch pies
15 ml vegetable oil
907 g ground pork
375 ml beef stock
3 onions, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
200 ml mushrooms
250 finely chopped celery
4 ml salt
2 ml cinnamon
1 ml cloves
250g bread crumbs
125g parsley leaves
1. Heat oil in a large skillet with medium-high heat, Cook pork for about 10 minutes or until the meat is no longer pink. Drain fat
2. Cook onions, garlic, mushrooms, celery, salt, cinnamon, pepper, savory, cloves, and stock; Reduce heat to medium-heat and simmer for about 40 minutes, stir occassionally until 25ml liquid remains.
3. Stir in bread crumbs and parsley.
4. Cover and refrigerate until cold.
5. Fill the shell with the meat filling, smoothening the top. Moisten rim with water and place pastry top over it, pressing the edges together. Trim and flute edges
6. Cut decorations and apply them on top. Egg wash tops
7. Cut steam vents. Bake about 190OC and cool afterwards.
TRADITIONAL SCOTCH PIES
Adapted from Canadian Living at http://www.canadianliving.com/food/traditional_scotch-pies.php
Yield: 3 5-inch pies
5ml vegetable oil
1 onion mince
907g lean ground BEEF
3 garlic cloves, chopped
5 ml dried savory
5ml dried sage
2ml all spice
15 ml water
1. In saucepan, cover eggs with water until it boils. Simmer for 15 minutes. Drain and chill in cold water. Peel egg
2. In small skillet, heat oil for over medium heat and then fry the onions and stir until golden. Transfer to bowl
3. Mix pork, garlic, pepper, salt, savory, sage, and all spice in a bowl
4. Press meat into bottom of pie shell and place a half-cut egg , cut side down, in centre. Press remaining meat over and press a pastry cover over it (with a cut circle vent in the middle). Crimp edges. Egg wash.
5. Bake at bottom third at 160Oc oven until meat thermometer registers at 71Oc for about an hour. Cool afterwards.
AUSSIE MEAT PIE
Adapted from: http://australianfood.about.com/od/beeflamb/r/AussieMeatPie.htm
Yield: 3 5-inch pies
1 Tbsp Olive Oil
1 medium brown onion, finely chopped
400g ground lean meat
1 Tbsp of cornstarch
¾ cup of beef stock
1/8 Tomato Paste
1 Tbsp Wocestershire Sauce
1 egg beaten
1. Heat oil in saucepan over medium heat. Saute onions
2. Add ground beef and cook until no longer pink
3. Combine cornstarch and 1 Tbsp of beef stock and stir
4. Add remaining beef stock, Worcestershire sauce, tomato paste to beef. Stir and combine. Add cornstarch mixture and stir. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes or until thick. Remove from heat to cool
5. Fill pastry-filled pie with filling. Brush rims with water.
6. Cover pie with tops. Seal edges with a fork.
7. Bake at 220Oc for 20 minutes or until golden. Serve with tomato sauce or ketchup.
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