Is there anything in the world of food more perfectly planned and wholesome than a pie? A whole meal, enclosed in a delicious crust. Savoury, sweet, or both (like the famous Bedfordshire clanger), they deliver everything one needs in a moment of hungriness: nourishment, great taste and comfort. What is the pie? How and when was did it come to existence? What makes a great pie? All these questions, and many more, are answered in Janet Clarkson’s volume in The Edible Series, Pie. A Global History.
I don’t think many would deny pie its comforting powers. Imagine a warm, still steaming apple pie, straight from the oven. It fills the kitchen with a delicate, alluring scent of sweet pastry, of the tartiness of the apples and, maybe, a hint of velvety cinnamon. The mouth waters instantly, you think about the first bite of this heavenly bake, maybe with a dollop of cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side. You know it’s going to be great.
‘There was no doubt in the minds of nineteenth-century cooks and cookbooks writers that there was something about pie – a difficult to grasp something that made it universally esteemed in a way that cake or stew or soup was not.’
But pie originated as a savoury bake, and as such, it is still known in some parts of the world, namely Britain and Australia. Oblivious to pie’s status in the UK, I was thrilled to find it on most pub’s menus, as well as in bakeries and supermarkets. For someone who considers börek (a meat or vegetable-filled pastry popular in Turkey and the Balkans) an epitome of amazingness, discovery of an array of savoury pies and pasties in England was a true reason for joy. I’d rather not admit how many Cornish pasties accompanied me on my train journeys to London, back when I was a grad student in the UK.
What is a pie then?
‘It is the food that looks backwards through our shared family memories. It is comfort food, the food inextricably linked in our cultural consciousness with motherhood and nationhood. Even though the pies are no longer a daily item on our dinner tables, they still figure large in many of our memories: pies mean Thanksgiving and Christmas and picnics and silly old Aunt Mabel and going to football with Dad.’
Janet Clarkson links the development of a pie to the appearance of early bread ovens, which, in turn, replaced the kilns used for both, firing clay objects and, with time, bread. Meanwhile, meat was still cooked in an open fire, which was not a great solution from an economic point of view: all the tasty meat juices were lost in the flames and resulting meat was dry and shrank in size. According to Clarkson, someone, somewhere came up with the idea of wrapping meat in clay, to encapsulate all the goodness within an airless vessel. From clay to the dough – and a pie was born.
In the Middle Ages, a bake-mete, aka meat pie emerged. Historically, the pie crust was often made several inches thick, which helped to withstand the many hours required to bake an enormous pie filled with an enormous amount of meat. It is still not certain what happened with the crust after baking (often referred to in sources as inedible or not meant to be eaten), but it was either used to soak up the sauces from the pie filling or, occasionally at least, reused.
‘The think crust of the early pie acted like a baking dish. For hundreds of years, it was the only form off baking container – meaning everything was pie. The crust also, as it turned out, performed two other useful functions: it acted as a carrying and storage container and, by virtue of excluding air, as a method of preservation.”
‘Dough becomes pastry when fat is added’, says Clarkson, and goes on to explain that not just any fat, and not just any flour would do when it comes to pastry making. The key element in crafting a good pastry for a pie is gluten: a protein present in wheat that enables the dough to be simultaneously strong (by giving it structure) and light (by enabling the trapping of air bubbles). ‘The task of a pastry-cook is to get just the right amount of gluten to make the pastry light and crumbly and flaky’ writes Clarkson, and I can’t agree more. I stopped counting, how many times I failed to get a pastry exactly how I wanted it.
The answers are these: use wheat flour (most gluten), exactly right amount of water (activates the gluten in flour), lard (highest melting point), and do not overwork the dough. If it only was as easy as it sounds! But, as Janet Clarkson points out, practice makes perfect:
‘Pastry-making, as every amateur baker fears, is as much about technique as ingredients. (…) Cool handling lengthens the time that the fat in the dough stays solid; using a minimum amount of water reduces the gluten content and also allows the dough to be crisper; minimal handling also reduces the gluten, so we do not knead the pastry as we do bread.’
Pie. A Global History is a book worth checking out. And don’t be fooled by its innocent, small size. If you want to know what a stargazy pie is and how it came about, what is an act of entarting, why is New England a pie-capital of America, and how to make a Tart de Bry according to the 1390 recipe by the Master-Cooks of King Richard II, this book is a go. It’s a concise, yet approachable history of a pie, a food that, for many, is a synonym of home and celebration. Just think Thanksgiving. Or Christmas.
‘If the pie dynasty is as I now suspect and fear, really dying, does it matter? Does anyone care? Should we simply look back with nostalgia and record its passing? Or should we try to save it?’, Clarkson asks, and adds:
‘Surely we should try to save something that, when done well, is not only a supreme example of the art of cooking but a dish that encapsulates humankind’s entire culinary history.’
What are your thoughts? I find that a world without a pie would be a tad bit sadder. Nothing is more sustaining for a long journey that a hand-pie: it nourishes both, the stomach and the soul, especially when far from home.
PS: Head over to my Goodreads profile for more quotes from the book.