Why are we in love with pies?
If there were a contender for the most historically loved and revered food in Britain, it is hard to imagine any other candidate trumping the pie.
This simple yet universally popular dish has been a faithful servant of Britain for centuries. Pies are referenced in everything from children’s nursery rhymes to Shakespeare and have been the subject of passionate debate and disagreement throughout our history. Pies have transcended class barriers, being eaten by peasants, Kings and Queens and every social class in-between. Pies have been served at the most elaborate and extravagant occasions as well as on the football terraces on a Saturday afternoon. They are unique in their utility, broad appeal and variety as a dish.
In short, pies are woven into our culture, history and culinary DNA in a way no other food can match.
So why has the pie ‘baked’ itself into our consciousness and consistently maintained its place in our hearts as a dish we cherish so much as a nation?
Here are 3 things about pies that we think explain why pies have endured in their popularity in Britain.
They are very useful. Like many popular foods across the world, the pie was originally designed to be eaten on the go. The pastry that we now love to eat as much as the filling was originally designed as a baking, carrying and preserving mechanism. Pastry was originally called ‘huff paste’ in Medieval Britain (paste being the origin of the word pastry) and was only eaten by the poor. The Nobles of Medieval Britain were more likely to discard the pastry before eating its contents. But for ordinary folk working the land, the pie provided the ideal fuel for a hard day’s toil being nutrient dense, compact, able to be eaten hot or cold and portable. Pies also provided a reduced risk of contamination, with clarified butter being used to seal the contents which could provide preservation of them for up to 3 months. For the richer classes, pies have provided a way to show off wealth and status, often being the centrepiece of many a Medieval Banquet. One particularly peculiar Medieval favourite was to serve up a pie containing live animals (and even one documented example of a dwarf!) including frogs, rabbits and of course ‘4 and 20 Blackbirds baked in a pie.’ So whether you have wanted a good hearty lunch, a warming treat on a cold football terrace or to impress your aristocratic chums at a lavish feast, the pie has met your needs over time.
We are hardwired to like pies. Sounds crazy? Let’s explore some biology. Like it or not, our ancestors developed a craving for nutrient dense food that provided energy that could be used straight away, or stored as fat to guard against leaner periods or famine. Your average prehistoric diner cared little about antioxidants or whether they should cut the carbs. If it looked and smelt good, it got eaten! And smell is the key primal function that is one reason we love pies so much. The combination of protein rich meat and high fat pastry being cooked at high temperatures (cooking further enriches the nutrient density of food, hence why smelling a neighbours BBQ makes you jealous) sends our senses into a state of desire that can only be relieved by scoffing it as soon as it's ready. Of course nowadays we have access to too much nutrient dense food and have developed more of a problem with overeating than undereating. But a good pie now and again satisfies the pallet in a way few other foods do. There is also an additional factor at play when we eat a good pie and that is one of texture. The tactile experience of the food we are eating plays a huge part in our enjoyment of it. If it didn’t we would just puree up all our food and drink it. But a pureed pie would probably be quite repulsive. It’s the contrast of crumbly light pastry, tender meat and rich gravy that in combination create something far superior to the sum of its parts, making pies a textural nirvana. Can there be another dish with so much to offer the senses?
They soothe our feelings and create positive emotions. Don’t worry, we won’t get too Carl Jung on you here, but pies create positive feelings in us that make us feel comforted and warm inside. We are social animals at heart and food creates bonds and experiences that over time become embedded with meaning. The renowned restaurant critic Craig Claiborne articulates this perfectly with the statement ‘I have learned that nothing can equal the universal appeal of the food of one’s childhood and early youth.’ Pies might not be the daily staple of life that they used to be, but they are baked into our collective memories. Childhood Christmas, going to watch the football with Dad at the weekend, picnics in the park and Granny’s special apple pie with custard all evoke a nostalgia that makes us feel warm and comforted. Above all, if someone goes to the trouble of making us a pie, then they must care about us. Because it takes effort, care and love to make a great pie.
Whilst our relationship with pies may have changed over the centuries, the pie continues to develop and change to our needs as a nation and will hopefully continue to do so for centuries to come.
If you're in the mood to celebrate this British classic dish, then please check out our range of pies. We've developed a range for all tastes, both traditional and adventurous.