The story of pies at Christmas
The festive season is one in which culinary traditions play a big part. What we eat and drink at Christmas is a fascinating insight into our history as a nation and it probably won’t surprise you to know that pies have featured heavily on our Christmas dinner tables for many centuries, with this special time of year being the perfect opportunity to bake up some particularly interesting and decadent festive pies.
Here is the story of 3 pies that have been a traditional part of British Christmas.
Lampreys are a jawless fish similar in appearance to an eel. They were once a very common food, being plentiful in number in Britain’s rivers. King Henry I was a little too partial to them and is thought to have died shortly after eating a ‘surfeit of lampreys.’
Lamprey pie was a traditional dish at Christmas in Medieval England and by 1200 it had become a custom for the city of Gloucester to send the English Monarch a lamprey pie every year at Christmas. It seems the good folk of Gloucester had possibly been enjoying their pre-festivities a little too much one year as it appears they forgot to send a lamprey pie to King John. Unfortunately King John did not extend them any festive goodwill for their error, fining the city £26 (around £40,000) for not sending him his pie.
The custom of the city sending the monarch a lamprey pie continued all the way up to 1836, but the decline of lampreys in British rivers (mainly due to increased use of weirs along with industrial pollution) meant they became increasingly rare and expensive. Thankfully efforts are underway to restore lamprey numbers and they are doing particularly well here in Yorkshire, with populations recovering in the Derwent and Ouse rivers in North Yorkshire. So perhaps we may see lamprey pie once again served as a festive dish in years to come.
Yorkshire Christmas Pie
Yorkshire Christmas pie was thought to have originated in the kitchens of the grand Harewood house, not far from Leeds. It was a huge pie made with a raised hot water crust and stuffed with many different meats including turkey, goose, fowl, partridge, pigeon, hare and woodcock. All this was seasoned with spices such as nutmeg, mace, cloves and black pepper before being encased in a massive coffin style pastry and baked for at least 4 hours. Many examples of these pies being sent down to London are recorded, with one example stating that the pie had collapsed under its own weight when received by its unfortunate recipient.
Yorkshire Christmas pie isn’t a regular feature of Christmas anymore and is probably beyond the means of most folk nowadays, but if you have enough inclination and are feeling particularly adventurous perhaps you could give it a try. If you do be sure to send us a picture!
The Mince Pie
Wardle stood with his back to the fire, surveying the whole scene, with the utmost satisfaction; and the fat boy took the opportunity of appropriating to his own use, and summarily devouring, a particularly fine mince-pie, that had been carefully put by, for somebody else.’
Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers
The mince pie has a fascinating and very long association with Christmas in the UK. It’s thought that the origin of this perennially popular pie goes back to the crusades, when middle Eastern cooking techniques and flavours came back with the soldiers who had been fighting abroad. It originally contained different types of meat including beef, lamb, offal and even tongue. Made with suet pastry, the meat was flavoured with exotic spices and fruits to create what was known in Elizabethan England as a ‘shred’ pie and later a ‘Christmas’ pie.
The 17th century wasn’t a good one for the Christmas pie (or for Christmas generally actually) as it was deemed ‘idolatrous’ and a symbol of Catholicism in puritan Britain, being for a while banned until the restoration of Charles II in 1660, who promptly reinstated both Christmas and the Christmas pie. No wonder he was called the Merry Monarch!
The modern mince pie has of course now evolved into a purely sweet recipe and it’s by far and away the most popular Christmas food eaten in the UK, with an estimated 800 million consumed each year.
According to tradition, if you want to ensure a lucky year ahead, you should eat one mince pie on each of the 12 days of Christmas. It’s unclear whether eating more than one a day would increase your luck, but it’s surely worth a try this year?
So there is the story of 3 of the pies traditionally eaten at Christmas. As a luxurious and deliciously moreish food, pies deserve a place on your Christmas dinner table this year. And if you’re looking for some super easy festive meals that will delight your guests, then why not consider getting some of our delicious pies ordered for your freezer. A perfect way to feed the family and guests on those days around the big day itself, where you just need a quick and easy way to serve a delicious meal.
Merry Christmas and happy pie eating!