This week has been British Pie Week – the list of ‘national awareness days’ just keeps on growing! The past week has also been ‘National Conversation Week’ (and I do mean conversation and not conservation!) and the whole month of March is designated ‘National Bed Month’! But let’s focus on the all important Pie Week… I decided to do some Googling about pies and it was quite a surprise!
Pies have been around a very, very long time. Technically, everything used to be a pie. The pastry shell was originally nothing more than a baking dish and storage container for the filling. The Romans would use meats, oysters and fish in their fillings while a mixture of flour, oil and water made a sturdy shell, or case, to keep the filling in place. Not surprisingly, the pastry was tough and inedible and designed to be thrown away. Our wonderful west country pasty’s distinctive ‘D’ shape was apparently designed to enable hardworking miners and labourers, with grubby hands, to eat their meal more easily using the thick crimped crust as a handle.
It’s hard to believe a culinary dish can have a sinister side to it, but the pie does. As someone always on the look out for an ‘interesting’ way of finishing people off for murder mystery purposes (literary, not literally!), I was amazed at how often the pie has been used as a way of killing characters.
The evil Sweeney Todd has to be the most famous pie-killer. He and Mrs Lovett baked their victims in pies and sold them. A fictional character who first appeared in a Victorian ‘penny dreadful’, it has long been speculated that it was based on true events, but I couldn’t find any clear evidence. Even the bard himself, William Shakespeare, has turned to the pie as a weapon and killed off two characters with a pie! In Titus Andronicus, Titus wreaks revenge on Queen Tamora and her family for their evil deeds by baking her sons into a pie and serving it to her. Ugh!
That king of killjoys, Oliver Cromwell, virtually banned the pie in 1644, when he decided it was a ‘pagan form of pleasure’. It wasn’t a complete ban on pies though, just a ban on Christmas celebrations and foods that were associated with the ‘pagan’ holiday, such as mince pies and turkey pies. Fortunately, the ban was lifted, but not until 1660.
I think most of you will remember the nursery rhyme ‘Sing a song of sixpence’ that contains the rather worrying line ‘Four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’. It seems that in 16th century England ‘surprise pies’ were all the range among the upper classes and live animals would jump out when a pie was cut open – extraordinary! All kinds of creatures were placed inside pies including frogs, squirrels, foxes and, as we know, large numbers of blackbirds. Some records even suggest that at a dinner attended by Charles I, a huge pie was put on the table and when the crust was removed, a dwarf jumped out! My goodness, we think there are some strange things on the internet these days, but it seems some people have always had a taste for the bizarre!
After discovering such a lurid background, I’m not entirely sure I shall ever be able to regard a pie as just a tasty thing to eat ever again!
Main photo: @britishpiesweek