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A pie is a baked dish which is usually made of a pastry dough casing that covers or completely contains a filling of various sweet or savoury ingredients. Pies can be either “filled”, where a dish is covered by pastry and the filling is placed on top of that, “top-crust,” where the filling is placed in a dish and covered with a pastry/potato mash top before baking, or “two-crust,” with the filling completely enclosed in the pastry shell. Pies can be a variety of sizes, ranging from bite-size to ones designed for multiple servings.
The need for nutritious, easy-to-store, easy-to-carry, and long-lasting foods on long journeys, in particular at sea, was initially solved by taking live food along with a butcher/cook. However, this took up additional space on what were either horse-powered treks or small ships, reducing the time of travel before additional food was required. This resulted in early armies’ adopting the style of hunter-foraging.
The introduction of the baking of processed cereals including the creation of flour, provided a more reliable source of food. Egyptian sailors carried a flat brittle bread loaf of millet bread called dhourra cake, while the Romans had abiscuit called buccellum.
The first pies appeared around 9500BC, in the Egyptian Neolithic period or New Stone Age, when the use of stone tools shaped by polishing or grinding became common, the domestication of plants and animals, the establishment of permanent villages, and the practice of crafts such as pottery and weaving. Early pies were known as galettes, wrapping honey as a treat inside a cover of ground oats, wheat, rye or barley. These galettes developed into a form of early sweet pastry or desserts, evidence of which can be found on the tomb walls of the Pharaoh Ramesses II, who ruled from 1304 to 1237 B.C., located in the Valley of the Kings.
With the knowledge transferred to the Ancient Greeks, historians believe that the Greeks originated pie pastry. Then a flour-water paste (add fat, and it becomes pastry), wrapped around meat, served to: cook the meat; seal in the juices; and provide a lightweight sealed holder for long sea journeys. This transferred the knowledge to the Romans who, having conquered parts of Northern Europe and southern Spain were far more adept at using salt and spices to preserve and flavour their meat.
The 1st century Roman cook book Apicius make various mention of various recipes which involve a pie case. By 160BC, Roman statesman Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 B.C.) who wrote De Agri Cultura, notes the recipe for the most popular pie/cake called Placenta. Also called libum by the Romans, it was more like a modern day cheesecake on a pastry base, often used as an offering to the gods. With the development of the Roman Empire and its efficient road transport, pie cooking spread throughout Europe.
Pies remained as a core staple of diet of traveling and working peoples in the colder northern European countries, with regional variations based on both the locally grown and available meats, as well as the locally farmed cereal crop. The Cornish pasty is an excellent adaptation of the pie to a working man’s daily food needs.
Medieval cooks were often restricted in cooking forms they were able to use, having restricted access to ovens due to their costs of construction and need for abundant supplies of fuel. Pies could be easily cooked over an open fire, while partnering with a baker allowed them to cook the filling inside their own locally defined casing. The earliest pie-like recipes refer to coffyns (the word actually used for a basket or box), with straight sealed sides and a top; open top pies were referred to as traps. This may also be the reason why early recipes focus on the filling over the surrounding case, with the partnership development leading to the use of reusable earthenware pie cases which reduced the use of expensive flour.
The first reference to “pyes” as food items appeared in England (in a Latin context) as early as the 12th Century, but no unequivocal reference to the item with which the article is concerned is attested in the Oxford English Dictionaryuntil the 14th century (Oxford English Dictionary sb pie).
Song birds at the time were a fine delicacy, and protected by Royal Law. At the coronation of eight-year old English King Henry VI (1422–1461) in 1429, “Partryche and Pecock enhackyll” pie was served, consisting of cooked peacockmounted in its skin on a peacock filled pie. Cooked birds were frequently placed by European royal cooks on top of a large pie to identify its contents, leading to its later adaptation in pre-Victorian times as a porcelain ornament to release of steam and identify a good pie.
The Pilgrim fathers and early settlers brought their pie recipes with them to America, adapting to the ingredients and techniques available to them in the New World. Their first pies were based on berries and fruits pointed out to them by the Native North Americans. Pies allowed colonial cooks to stretch ingredients and also used round shallow pans to literally “cut corners,” and create a regional variation of shallow pie.