The humble pie has a long and fascinating history that can be traced back to ancient Egypt – a recipe for a chicken pie was discovered on a tablet carved prior to 2,000 BC. Sweet-toothed Egyptians made their pies from ground oats, wheat, rye or barley and filled them with honey. Evidence of their fondness for these honey-filled delights can be found on the tomb walls of Pharaoh Ramesses II in the Valley of the Kings. Fast forward to the fifth century BC, and it was the ancient Greeks who invented pastry as we know it, which popped up in the plays of Aristophanes.
The Greeks were the first to recognise the trade of the pastry cook as separate from that of a baker. Picking up where the Greeks left off, the Romans evolved the concept of the pie, using a pastry shell made from flour, oil and water to preserve the meat inside. A Roman cookbook called Apicius references pie cases, and includes a recipe similar to that of a cheesecake with a pastry base, called, rather unappetisingly, ‘placenta’, which was often used as an offering to the gods.
The word pastry was in use in Britain by the mid-14th century. Like the Romans, the first pies to be made on our shores were filled with meat, with the pastry serving to preserve and protect the meat inside it rather than doubling as a tasty treat. Known as ‘pyes’ in Medieval times, the pastry cases were (rather ominously) called ‘coffyns’, into which all manner of bird and beast were flung. Bird pies would often be made with the legs left dangling out of them – allowing for easy scoffing.
Meat pies spiced with pepper, currants and dates were the centrepieces of many a Medieval banquet, where chefs would try to outdo one another with ever more elaborate creations. An eight-year-old Henry VI was served a peacock pie at his coronation, while Elizabeth I was said to have been served the first cherry pie ever created. The pie is thought to get its name from the word ‘magpie’ – the curious collector of odds and ends – as the early British versions were filled with a medley of meats, from chicken, crow and pigeon to rabbit, mallard and woodcock.
At the time, open top pies were called ‘traps’. The dish was even used by Shakespeare as a device to kill off two characters in Titus Andronicus by having them baked into a pie for attacking Titus’s daughter. In the ultimate act of revenge, Titus served the pie to the victims’ mother. While apple pie is as American as the Star-Spangled Banner, the first printed recipe for the dish was penned by English author Geoffrey Chaucer, while the term ‘eating humble pie’ derives from ‘umble’ pies, which were filled with minced liver, lungs and kidneys, and eaten by the poor.
Continuing my comfort food drive, last week I cooked my first ever pie. They always seemed too complex and fiddly to tackle, but I adore pastry, so felt the time had come to give one a go. With the snow falling outside, I opted for the most decadent recipe I could find online, which substitutes milk for cream and includes a generous glug of white wine – Kylie Minogue’s new Aussie Chardonnay from Margaret River worked a treat. As with many classic recipes, the pie begins by frying onions until meltingly soft, then adding mushrooms, garlic and thyme.
After thickening the mixture with flour, chicken stock and white wine are added, followed by cooked chicken breasts. Before adding the cream it’s worth allowing the ingredients the chance to mingle on a low heat for at least 10 minutes. Cheating with shop bought puff pastry, affixing the pie lid was a bit fiddly, but I enjoyed pretending to be a professional baker by pinching the sides, crafting a trio of leaves from the offcuts, and brushing my creation with an egg wash. After half an hour in the oven it emerged as a joyously puffed up golden wonder, glossy from its egg glaze like a painted pot fresh from the kiln.
With England in the midst of our third national lockdown, it felt rather sad taking my piping hot pie out of the oven to an empty table. It made me yearn for hungry mouths to feed. My disappointment didn’t last long, however, as I soon began devouring it with greedy delight, being careful to leave the leaves in tact for as long as I could. Nothing could have tasted more comforting to me on that snowy Sunday afternoon – the buttery pastry soaking up the creamy, wine-spiked sauce that spoke both of sophistication and indulgence. It was my first but certainly won’t be my last pie. I only hope I have others to share my next one with.