A traditional British pie is a national institution, and us Brits love them. We spend over one billion pounds on this delicious dish every year, with 75% enjoying at least one once a month*.
At Chef & Brewer we love pies – whether it’s sweet or savoury, puff or flaky, meat or vegetarian, there is a pie for everyone! We’ve taken the opportunity to celebrate British Pie Week (6-12 March) and find out why us Brits are such pie-eaters.
The idea of enclosing a filling in a pastry shell originates from ancient Rome. However, the pie we know (and love) today, has its roots in the north of England. Originally dubbed ‘pyes’, they were made of a stodgy meat filling, and a robust pastry made with butter and lard which was often left uneaten. The first fruit pie was a cherry pie presented to Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century.
Stratford-Upon-Avon College currently holds the record for the world’s largest meat pie. In 1998, the college made a pie that weighed in at a staggering 10.54 kilograms, which is about the weight of a small dog!
Fortunately, our portion sizes are a little easier on the stomach – our Kentish Bramley Apple Pie is baked in shortcrust pastry, with an indulgent filling and served with custard, double cream or ice cream.
It may surprise you to know that there is an annual world pie-eating contest, which is held in Wigan. The competition was first held in 1992, and has been steeped in controversy - with concerns over the size, origin and quantity of the pie all called into question. To win, competitors have to consume a pie in the fastest time - the current winner is 46-year-old Mancunian, Martin Appleton Clare, who devoured the pie within 38.2 seconds.
World famous playwright, William Shakespeare, killed off two characters with pies. Out of his 38-scripted works, two unfortunate characters were baked in a pie and served to an unsuspecting diner. In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first tragedy, Titus bakes Queen Tamora’s sons in a pie for committing atrocities to his daughter. He then served the pie to her – that must have been hard to stomach!
Everyone has their favourite pie filling, but there are some flavours that are universally enjoyed by pie-eaters. A steak and ale pie is a classic combination, and the ultimate comfort food.
Our steak and ale pie comes from one of Britain’s oldest family-owned bakeries, and was awarded Best Beef and Ale Pie at the British Pie Awards in 2015. It is made with farm-assured British beef and Ruddles ale gravy enclosed in a shortcrust pastry, and served with mashed potato and seasonal veg. Pop into your local Chef and Brewer, and try it for yourself.
The expression ‘to eat humble pie’ derives from the French word ‘nombles’. Brits used the phrase ‘numbles’ to refer to the filling which consisted of animal heart, liver, lungs and kidneys. Eventually the ‘N’ was dropped and the ‘umble’ pie was born. It was typically eaten by those of humble origin, which could have led to the creation of the common phrase we know today.
Many people are familiar with the classic nursery rhyme ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’, and the blackbirds that sung from the pie. The rhyme is thought to originate from 14th century Europe, when diners would indulge in luxury banquets with ‘entremets courses’, or entertainment dishes in-between courses. It’s believed one extravagant dish had holes in the base of a pre-baked pie, so that when it was presented to guests live birds would fly out.
Some history books even suggest that a dwarf jumped out of a pie at a banquet for Charles I – now that is quite a filling!
The record for the world’s most expensive pie went to a pub in Lancashire in 2005, which sold a slice of pie for £1,024.
The steak and mushroom pie was made with a difference; guests who could afford it were treated to Japanese wagyu beef fillet and Chinese matsutake mushrooms (costing £500 per 1kg), and French Bluefoot mushrooms (£200 per 1kg). It also included pastry with edible gold leaf and gravy made with two bottles of vintage wine.
Us Brits are very particular about what makes a pie, and it has been known to be a sensitive issue. In fact, in 2015 a petition was launched to make it a criminal offence to describe a casserole with a pastry lid as a pie - the campaign garnered over 5,000 signatures.
To try and demystify any confusion, the Oxford English Dictionary states that the pie is ‘a baked dish of fruit, or meat and vegetables, typically with a top and base of pastry’ - therefore a puff pastry lid on top of a casserole or an open tart do not constitute a pie.
In 1644, Oliver Cromwell and his puritan council tried to ban Christmas and its many festivities, including the consumption of mince pies. They considered the mince pie a forbidden pagan pleasure that drew links to Catholicism. The ban was lifted in 1660 with the restoration of the English monarchy.
This British phrase can be used both positively and negatively. It can be used to describe someone who is energetic and involved in lots of different activities, or it can be used to describe someone who is involved in too many activities.
The phrase is thought to derive from greedy kitchen visitors who couldn’t resist trying out the pie by sticking their finger in it. It can be traced back to literary works in the 17th century, including Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, in which the Duke of Buckingham refers to Cardinal Wolseley, saying "The devil speed him! No man's pie is freed from this ambitious finger".