Good quality pies are the ultimate in comfort food and that’s just one of the many reasons we Brits love them so much. There is something to be said for the delicious contrast between crisp, golden pastry and the succulent, savoury filling that is wholesome, comforting and very nutritious at the same time. Our inclement weather can often mean that anytime throughout the year is pie time and they can always be enjoyed hot as part of a main meal, like pie and mash with liquor.
The handmade pie itself has an incredibly rich and varied history in Britain and our love for this kind of baked good goes back much further than you’d ever imagine. In fact, to find the earliest instances you’d have to go right back to the invasion of the Romans during the first century AD, when they brought with them the notion of encasing meats, fish or fruit in a kind of case similar to that which we would recognise today. It provided good food on the go and kept the cooked ingredients fresh, meaning that they could also be taken away to eat at any time during the day. By the time the Romans left our shores, we were hooked on this way of cooking and continued it through the centuries.
It was during the mediaeval period that pies really took off, particularly among nobility. More often than not however, they were created as a great show, forming part of rich, lavish banquets, the pastry being shaped into arty creations designed to dazzle everyone there. It’s also through this period that we see the first notion of the word “pie” being used, probably during the late fourteenth century. Cooks at this time needed to make use of what little cooking space they had and this sort of food could be easily cooked over an open fire. However, at first, they would use the pastry primarily as a vessel for holding the meat or fish within and the case would be discarded, or given to poor people who gathered outside fine houses and castles waiting for something to eat. This, in part, gave way to rich people being known as the ‘upper crust’!
The tradition of eating the whole pie, filling, pastry and all only started to become more popular during the nineteenth and twentieth century, when pie and mash shops started to open and become more widely known, particularly in the south of the country. Now, we savour the standard of the casing, just as much as the delicious filling. We experiment much more with the sort of ingredients we put into them too, which is why this food remains as popular as it is, constantly evolving and changing. Traditional pie staples such as beef remain the mainstay, and are the sort of ingredients that people turn back to the most when they want a comforting, satisfying and filling dish that everyone right from Grandma down to the youngest children will love to eat.