Meat pies

From the working man to the knight, everyone at meat pies.

On the street, vendors sold hot meat pies made of the cheapest possible ingredients. The pastry was coarse, thick and tough; the meat it enclosed was guaranteed only to have come from a real animal. Street pie bakers generally got the ingredients from the butcher’s bargain bin: guts, blood, stringy stuff, organs of low dietary value.

Moving up on the social scale, a middle-class meat pie had real meat and better pastry. The meat could be of any kind: pork, mutton, chicken, duck, hare, fish, eel, or even beef (worn-out oxen). Unlike our Swanson Turkey Pot Pies, they did not include vegetables. Baking a pie required use of an oven, unless a “dutch oven” buried in coals would do. Many pies were sent to the commercial bakery to be finished, and so gradually pies became a mostly-commercial product. Pie baking became its own branch of commercial cooking.

Upscale castle pies were less likely to contain mutton or fish (except in Lent). They were more likely to be made from wild game, since aristocrats owned the forests and jealously guarded all hunting rights. Venison and eel pies show up in cook books, for example. These pies included spices like pepper, cinnamon and ginger. Their pastry was made only from wheat, and it was often decorated. Cooks cut scraps of pastry into leaves and flowers, just like Martha Stewart. They brushed the pies with beaten egg before baking, so that they came out glossy.

At the top of the pie hierarchy were the feast pies. These were works of showmanship as much as (or more than) they were table food. Very large pastry dishes were used to bake unusually big pie shells, but they had nothing in them. A hole was cut into the bottom so that the empty shell could be accessed without cracking the top. One popular trick was to bake a normal high-class pie and place it carefully inside, so that food really was being served: but live birds were also inserted, their feet untied just before going in. With the foundation hole covered, the birds were trapped inside until the cooks sliced into the pie in front of the banquet crowd. The birds flew into the rafters, and then they could serve the real pie.

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