My childhood fascination with English food is rooted in the description of delectable sounding dishes Enid Blyton wrote in her books. However, having sampled most of the food she wrote about, I have decided to stick with one or two favourites and one is the pie.
When I think of pies, what usually comes to my mind are the dulcet crumbly warm kinds like the famous apple pie. Well not so here in the UK. Both the sweet and savoury kinds are quite popular and with modern ready-to-cook ingredients, quite easy to prepare too. But when the pie started out as a dish, it was quite humble and practical. The modern variety came about from the need to be able to carry edible food over long distances.
Food historian Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food said, ‘If the basic concept of a pie is taken to mean a mixture of ingredients encased and cooked in pastry, then proto-pies were made in the classical world and pies certainly figured in early Arab cookery.’
Pies are usually a pastry casing which have cooked sweet (fruits, nuts) or savoury (meat, fish, egg and cheese) fillings. The word pastry here means a casing made of flour, butter and water. The basic concept of pies has changed little throughout the ages. However, there are many many different types of pie that have evolved as time has gone by. For example the pizza is actually a pie and so is a calzone! One may also ask what is the difference between a pie, a turnover, a tart or a strudel. Well they are similar in the use of ingredients such as flour water and eggs but quite different in the way they are cooked. But they may be considered cousins, I am told.
The first pies were very simple and generally of the savoury kind. Fruit-filled varieties appeared in the early 19th century. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the first time the word “pie” was used was in 1303.
The word itself is said to have been derived from magpie, which was shortened to “pie”. The reason is that just as the magpie collects a variety of things, a pie contains a variety of ingredients. Early pies were large for all to share. However, nowadays you can buy (or prepare) smaller ones for individual consumption.
One of the most famous pies in England is the pasty. Associated with the County of Cornwall, it looks like an extra-large gujiya (a dish made in India with a sweet filling, usually had during the festival of Holi). The traditional Cornish pasty is filled with beef, sliced or diced potato, turnip and onion, seasoned with salt and pepper, and baked. During the 17th and 18th centuries due to its convenient shape and wholesome nature, the pasty became popular with working people in Cornwall. Miners liked to carry it on site as it could be carried easily and eaten without cutlery.
While the filling tends to be the star of the show, it is the pastry (or crust or casing), which marks a good pie from an average one. When baking a pie, some people like to make their own, and others like the ready-made store bought variety. Still others, like me, like to buy pies made by professionals and nibble on them on a cold afternoon with a cup of hot tea!