Throughout history, pies acted as simple fodder sustaining folk on the move, but also the most spectacular centrepieces for feasts.
The nursery rhyme “Sing a song of sixpence … four and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie,” refers to the famous ‘animated’ pie of the Middle Ages, inside which small animals like rabbits, frogs, turtles and even small people were hidden to spring out and entertain the guests when the crust was cracked. The dwarf’s trick was to emerge and walk down the length of the table singing, reciting poetry or sketching the no doubt astonished diners.
Mercifully for the birds, and for hygiene standards too, the tradition civilised into inserting ‘pie birds’ (small hollow ceramic funnels shaped like a blackbird) into the top crust to let steam escape. The Georgians, however, still kept up a sense of the sensational, as recorded in Mrs Maria Eliza Rundell’s 1806 cookbook: “The large pies in Staffordshire are made … with a goose outwards, then a turkey, a duck next, then a fowl; and either a tongue, small birds, or forcemeat, in the middle.”
The Victorians were fond of these monstrosities too: whenever Emperor William I of Germany visited Queen Victoria (1819-1901), he was served his favourite pie: a whole turkey stuffed with a chicken, the chicken stuffed with a pheasant, and the pheasant stuffed with a woodcock.
These pies certainly aren’t as grand, but more delicious I’d argue – and worldly too, arising as they do from Greece and Russia, with a homely ham and apple pie from Shropshire.
Spanakopita (Greek Spinach pie)
2.5lb/1.25kg spinach or mixed wild leaves – Good King Henry, fat-hen, watercress, dandelion; 4-5 tbsp sesame oil; 3 eggs, lightly beaten; 1 tsp grated nutmeg; 6 scallions or large spring onions, minimally trimmed, rinsed and chopped; 4 tbsp chopped dill or mint; 8oz/250g grated feta cheese (or 6oz/175g grated cheddar and 2oz/50g grated parmesan); 8-10 sheets filo pastry.
Keep the sheets of filo covered while you work, so they don’t dry out.
Sweat the greens with the onions and herbs in 1 tbsp of sesame oil and the water that clings to them after washing, for 5 minutes until they wilt. Sprinkle with the grated feta, or the same weight of grated cheddar mixed with parmesan.
Stir in the eggs and mix thoroughly.
Season with salt and pepper and nutmeg. Heat the oven to 350F/180C. Layer a pastry base of eight sheets of filo, brushing between the layers with sesame oil, in the oiled baking tray – the pastry should just reach up the sides.
Spread in the spinach mixture. Lid the pie with another four sheets of filo brushed with oil. Mark with a diamond pattern and sprinkle water over the pastry, using your fingertips dipped in water. This will stop the pastry curling up. Bake for 45-50 minutes, until the pastry is flaky and golden. The pie is at its best served just warm.” [Elisabeth Luard, European Festival Food].
Kulebiaka (Salmon Pie)
A classic Russian recipe, this is a rectangular pastry pie filled with layers of salmon, rice, wild mushrooms and eggs. From ‘Feasts: Food for Sharing from Central and Eastern Europe’ by Silvena Rowe, this is a Polish variation using buckwheat instead of rice.
500g (1lb 2oz) fresh salmon fillet, skinned and boned; 85g (3oz) butter; 2 small shallots, peeled and finely chopped; 200g (7oz) wild mushrooms, washed and dried; 150g (5.5oz) buckwheat grains, boiled until tender; 2 tbsp chopped fresh dill; 2 tbsp lemon juice; salt and pepper; 450g (1lb) fresh puff pastry; 3 large eggs, hard-boiled, shelled and chopped; 1 large egg, beaten.
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Cut the salmon into 5cm (2 inch) pieces. Melt half the butter in a medium pan, and fry the shallots until soft.
In another pan, melt the remaining butter and sauté the mushrooms for a few minutes, until cooked. Cool slightly. Stir the cooked buckwheat into the shallots with the dill, lemon juice and some salt and pepper. Roll out the puff
pastry on a slightly floured surface to a 25-30cm (10-12 inch) square. Spoon the buckwheat mixture over half of the pastry, leaving 1cm (half an inch) around the edges. Arrange the salmon on top and sprinkle with the chopped hard-boiled egg. Top with the wild mushrooms.
Brush the edges of the pastry with the beaten egg and fold the pastry over the filling to make a rectangle, pressing the edges together. Brush liberally all over with the rest of the beaten egg and place the pastry on an oiled baking sheet. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 30-40 minutes, until the pie is golden brown. Cool slightly before cutting to serve.
A traditional Shropshire recipe of ham, Bramley apple and cider pie, from The Hairy Bikers’ Food Tour of Britain.
500g shortcrust pastry; 3 tbsp semolina; 450g potatoes, peeled and thickly sliced; 2 tbsp plain flour; 110ml double cream; 300g Bramley cooking apples, peeled and thickly sliced; 2 onions, finely sliced; 300g ham, thickly sliced; 2-3 tbsp soft brown sugar; 8 sprigs of sage, leaves chopped; 110ml dry cider; 1 egg, beaten.
To prepare the pastry case, pre-heat the oven to 190C, then roll out two thirds of the pastry about 5mm thick and use this to line a 23cm springform cake tin. Let the pastry hang over the edges of the tin to allow for shrinkage. Cover with a piece of baking parchment and fill with baking beans to stop the pastry rising while cooking.
Bake for 15 minutes, then remove the baking parchment and beans and return to the oven for five to eight more minutes to brown the base of the pastry. Remove, cool slightly, then trim excess pastry. Sprinkle the semolina over the pastry to absorb any excess moisture in the filling.
To make the pie, bring a pan of salted water to the boil, add the potatoes and simmer for three to four minutes until they are just tender.
Drain and toss them with the flour, double cream, salt and black pepper. Layer the filling ingredients into the base. Start with a layer of apples followed by potatoes, onions and ham and season as you go with sugar, sage, salt and black pepper.
Add the cider, pouring it carefully so it doesn’t fizz up. Roll the remaining pastry into a disc to cover the top of the pie. Brush the edges of the case with beaten egg and add the lid, pinching the pastry to form a seal around the edges. Place the pie in the oven for an hour until the pastry is golden brown and cooked through. Remove, and allow to cool slightly before serving in wedges with a pint of beer.