Alice Thomas Ellis
IN THE ISLES of Britain for proper pies you have to travel north. I once had a theory about this but like most historical theories, it may not stand up to close examination. Anyway I've forgotten precisely what it was. It had something to do with cooking methods and warfare, with the timing of dishes and the frequent necessity to drop everything and flee.
The Celts, I held (I seem to remember) never mastered the art of slow cooking by casserole in a closed oven because the meat would never have time to get tender before the Romans, or the neighbouring tribe, or the Anglo-Saxons descended on them, ravaging and pillaging. The Welsh fighting man, so it was said, probably by Giraldus Cambriensis, simply squeezed his meat on the cleft of a tree and ate it raw. His womenfolk boiled everything in iron pots over an open fire or griddled pancakes on a hot stove, while the Scots who eventually realised that the pie offered a useful means of conveying victuals to high ground, invented the stout crust which is made with boiling water and stands up to rough treatment.
Be that as it may, the fact remains that while the southerner might have a lighter hand with pastry, it is only as you venture north that you will find those robust, upstanding, incomparable pies of pork or mutton at their cholesterol-laden best. You don't have to aim for John O'Groats. In Easingwold in Yorkshire there is a butcher's shop which sells the best pork pies in the country. On a shelf behind all the usual cuts of meat are golden-brown pies, large and small, flanked by unashamed tubs of dripping. Therein lies the secret: you can't construct a proper pork pie with wimpish substitute for honest animal fat. Nor, of course, can you consume too many of them unless you mean to work off your energy slaying invaders. They do not make a suitable tea on a daily basis for a child who has been driven to and from school, or a person who spends his time gazing at a computer. Like the Cornish pastie, the southern answer to the problem of how to transport a meal to work without dropping bits everywhere, the pie was designed to succour people engaged in heavy manual labour. (The sandwich, invented by the sedentary aristocrat, seems effete in comparison and somewhat decadent. It does not travel as well as the pie or the pastie and tends to disintegrate or curl up at the edges, which is not surprising since its original purpose was immediate and meant only to sustain the Earl at the gaming table.) As time went by, the pie or "cofyn" got fancier. The wealthy, who were not going anywhere in a hurry, ordered them for their banquets and dreamed up novel ways of making them more interesting, such as putting live birds inside and then raising the lid with whoops of merriment. The tradition has survived amongst the vulgar in the form of "cake" which opens to reveal scantily clad girls, leaping out, intoning Happy Birthday or anything appropriate to the occasion. Tsk. Needless to say, the presence of four and 20 blackbirds in a pie would render it inedible. They sometimes put frogs in too to frighten the ladies, and all in all one feels these celebratory occasions, then as now, were best avoided by the fastidious. Janet makes a useful modern pie with (dead) chicken and mushrooms and next week will disclose the method.
I only have room to note that some authorities now claim the Celts never existed as a race. So much for theory.