Many regional cuisines and cultures make pastries but no other region that I can think of offers the home cook such a huge variety of savoury and sweet pies as Ireland and Great Britain. By way of example, the iconic ceramic “Black Bird” that acts as a vector for removing the internal steam from a covered pie could only have been conceived, created and made on the blustery shores of Old Blighty. I remember my great delight whenever Grandma made pies with the head of a black bird poking out of the middle. As a young child I loved the shiny blackness of the dinky bird with it’s neck stretched out to the heavens to sing a song of six-pence.
We never ate pies in Germany. I have never been offered a pie in Belgium. French, Italian, Spanish or Portuguese eateries rarely have pie on the menu. Compare this to British, Irish and North American cooking where pies are ubiquitous – pork pies, cheese pies, game pie, spinach and salmon pie, Cornish pasties, apple and blackberry pie, fish pie and so on and so forth. Pies are possibly so ubiquitous to British cooking because Ireland and Britain have historically been only able to grow low-protein wheat referred to as either soft or plain flours.
One possible explanation for the deeply-engrained tradition of pie- baking in Ireland and Britain is the weather. The cooler, damper, temperate climate of Ireland and Britain mean that the fertile fields of this region grow a beautiful golden wheat but it is not a hard, high protein wheat such as that grown in the fertile crescents of the middle east, north Africa or the Mediterranean.
Soft wheat is excellent for making biscuits, pancakes and pies but it is pretty dismal for making a leavened loaf. The lack of protein in soft wheat prevent the air bubble from getting trapped between the protein, critical to making a risen loaf with a soft crumb. No mater how much yeast you add to soft wheat the dough will not rise. This could explain why Britain has not produced so many fine bread varieties as Germany or Scandinavia. Few old British recipes call for a sourdough loaf. It could also explain why white, pappy toast and the Chorleywood Bread is still so popular in the UK – a damp, rubbery slice that no self-respecting German or Scandinavian cares to touch – not even if they had the chance to do so with an ivory and solid silver butter knife.
Yet, wheat has been grown and harvested on the British Isles since long before the Romans arrived. There are plenty of old mills in Britain and Ireland that milled grain prior to the industrial revolution – obviously local populations were not going to waste this precious resource because they couldn’t make a decent leavened bread. Instead they turned the ground grain into ales, porridges and pies – and thank goodness for it! I love pies – and my little blackbird. A pie can be sweet or savoury, it can be bottom only or top only or it can be what in medieval times they somewhat ghoulishly called a coffin – i.e. a bottom and top pie. In my opinion a home-made pie revival is exactly what the world needs right now. Forget the zero-sugar, zero-protein, paleo, Banting, vegan, low-fat, banana diets that are so popular today. Embrace a heritage diet. It did our ancestors no harm – in fact a satiating home-made pie probably did them the world of good!
A home-made pie using fresh and local produce is not only filling, satiating and satisfying it is also, regardless of what an army of food gurus and health experts would have you believe, a nutritious meal. Pies fed and nourished the British, Irish and later American populations for hundreds of years without doing them any untoward harm. If there is any harm in a modern pie it the modern reliance of cheap, fake and invented vegetable shortenings. The only way to circumvent this problem is to roll your sleeves up, dust the working surfaces, make your own pastry with natural, heritage ingredients and begin to roll, roll, roll….