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Raising The Game - The History of Game Pie

Pies have a rich tradition and history not just in Britain, but across the world and game pie is a dish with a fascinating story all of its own to tell.

Game generally refers to the meat from any animal that is hunted rather than farmed and can include Venison, Pheasant, Wood Pigeon, Duck, Grouse and Rabbit.

There are references to game pie dating all the way back to Roman times, where game pies were a delicacy that included wild birds and animals such as Partridge, Pheasant, Deer and Hare.

In Britain, Game pie provides us with a little insight into the social history of our nation. In a time where most foods are commonly available to us, it is difficult to appreciate that what food you ate was a direct reflection of your social class in years gone by. An article in an English newspaper from 1857 about the famous Derby horse race sums up this class-food divide very clearly.

‘The Derby is worth seeing, I do not know where England altogether is so well represented. It is there in sample – the highest aristocracy and the lowest democracy… The Bishops drive out in their coaches with hampers of Game pies and Champagne, and the costermonger, loaded with bread, cheese and beer, drivers out with his barrow and donkey.’

So why did game pie hold such a place at the top of the culinary hierarchy in society?

Well, quite simply, to get access to game in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, you had to either own your own shooting estate, or be good friends with someone who did. Hunting was quite literally the sport of Kings (although also of Queens as shown by Queen Victoria’s particular fondness for hunting on the shooting estates of Scotland during her regular visits to the Cairngorms with her husband Prince Albert). Of course, that’s not to say the hoi polloi didn’t hunt game at all, but if they did it was classed as poaching not hunting!

No doubt roaming over moors and hillsides shooting virtually anything that moved made your average Victorian aristocrat quite peckish and so raised game pies were often served during delicious picnics whilst out on hunting trips.

Game pie became synonymous with wealth, country pursuits, status and social hierarchy. Often made from meats such as Venison, Rabbit, Partridge, Grouse, Woodcock and Wild Duck, the inside of the raised pastry case would be densely packed with meat, herbs, juniper and sometimes even pork meatballs before being lidded. After cooling, hot stock would be poured into the pie through holes left in the lid which would then form a jelly making a succulent and flavourful meal.

But game pie was often about extravagance as much as it was about flavour, and the famous Yorkshire Christmas pie was the pinnacle of elaborate pie making. The Georgian cookery writer, Hannah Glasse, gives us a recipe for this colossal sounding pie in her 1774 book, The Art of cookery made easy (although how ‘easy’ this recipe would be to make in practise is debatable!).

FIRST make a good standing crust, let the wall and bottom be very thick; bone a turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge, and a pigeon, Season them all very well, take half an ounce of mace, half an ounce of nutmegs, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, and half an ounce of black-pepper, all beat fine together, two large spoonfuls of salt, and then mix them together.

Open the fowls all down the back, and bone them; first the pigeon, then the partridge; cover them; then the fowls then the goose, and then the turkey, which must be large; season them all well first, and lay them in the crust, so as it, will look only like a whole turkey; then have a hare ready cased, and wiped with a clean cloth.

Cut it to pieces, that is, joint it; season it, and lay it as close as you can on one side; on the other side woodcocks, moor game, and what sort of wild-fowl you can get. Season them well, and lay them close; put at least four pounds of butter into the pie, then lay on your lid, which must be a very thick one, and let it be well baked.

It must have a very hot oven, and will take at least four hours. This crust will take a bushel of flour. In this chapter you will see how to make it. These pies are often sent to London in a box, as presents; therefore, the walls must be well built.

 The Yorkshire Christmas pie was a seasonal dish that could be found on the menu of Harewood House near Leeds during the 19th century, allegedly requiring entire teams of cooks to prepare it. Looking at Hannah Glasse’s recipe, it’s not hard to see why!

Luckily for us mere mortals, game pie can nowadays be enjoyed without going to the expense of buying a Scottish shooting estate or by rubbing shoulders with the landed gentry. The democratisation of food has meant that most if not all foods are ubiquitously available to us modern foodies. Game is not just a seasonal treat, but also a food that is being rediscovered in the UK, not only for its delicious natural flavours, but for its nutritional qualities. Meats such as Venison and Pheasant offer high protein, low fat alternatives to beef or lamb any in many cases, game can be not only leaner but higher in Omega 3 fatty acids and other beneficial nutrients.

So why not channel your inner deerstalker and give game pie a try if you’ve not done so already!

At Yorkshire Handmade Pies, our seasonal game pie is a huge favourite, packed with succulent Yorkshire and Scottish game, so make sure to catch this delicious seasonal special while you can!