If you want to understand a culture- any culture- one of the best places is to take a look at their history as it pertains to food. Food and the way it evolves within a culture is often influenced by the economic and social circumstances of the day, as well as the availability (or lack thereof) of ingredients. In this ongoing series of articles, we’re taking a look at some of our own cultural dishes, both to get a better understanding of ourselves, and to see how we have shared influences with other cultures in the process. Today, we’re going to be looking at just one singular dish, and perhaps one of the most storied in our history: the Game Pie
As the name suggests, Game Pie is a meat based pie that uses various kinds of of Game in place of other meats, typically Venison, Pigeon, and Rabbit, although more complex versions throughout a number of periods included thing such as chicken, duck, even fish and occasionally fruit and a range of spices and flavourings. In it’s earliest documented form, said to be around the time of the Roman rule and occupation of the country, it was a delicacy reserved solely for the wealthy members of society. The German classical scholar Wilhelm Adolf Becker states in his writings that noted Roman emperor Augustus frequently consumed pies containing a rich combination of Chicken, Pheasants, Pigeon, and Duck.
In and around the middle ages, the Game Pie- known back then as a “Bake Mete”- was baked in an especially tough and sometimes even inedible pastry shell that was discarded upon consumption, with the crust acting as the sole container for the insides- even during the cooking process. A certain air of the morbid crept up around the Game Pie during this period in the form of heavy Coffin symbology- the very practise of raising the sides of the pie to help create a sturdier protective crust was often referred to as “raising the coffin” in several cookbooks from the 1400s and 1500s. In a similar vain to the days of Rome, Game Pies containing the best meat were reserved for the wealthy, whilst ones cooked and consumed by servants and peasants would typically be filled with the left over “umbles” from making pies for their masters- hearts, livers, and a variety of other kinds of offal. It is believed that the term “eating humble pie” came from this practise.
In the age of the Tudors, things began to change slightly. The Game Pie was no longer the realm of the rich and the powerful alone. Peasants and Country folk were granted the right to hunt smaller game, typically Rabbits and Pigeons, to supplement their diets. This is something that stayed consistent up until the 1816 Gaming Act. Conversely, the prestige surrounding the Game Pie amongst the upper classes of society grew further; oftentimes Game Pie became the centrepiece dish of exquisite feasts that incorporated musicians, comedians, and acrobats as an additional form of entertainment. Occasionally, these ideas of food and spectacle were combined; one of the most notable forms of this is the practise of placing live birds within the pies themselves, that naturally would fly off when the crust was cut into upon being served. The famous English Nursery Rhyme, “Sing A Song Of Sixpence”, often has it’s origins attributed to this curious practise.
It’s around about this time that we begin to enter what is commonly known as the Golden Age Of Game Pie, at the turn of the 18th Century. Quite a lot of the traditions surrounding the pie began to change at a fairly fast pace.
At the turn of the 18th Century Game Pie began to get a little extravagant, to put it mildly. One example of a typical Game Pie of the age comes from Hannah Glasse’s seminal cookbook The Art Of Cookery; A Christmas Pie that called for Pigeon, Partridge, Pigeon and Goose, all boned, placed within each other, and then placed within an enormous Turkey. Another, documented by Benjamin Disraeli in his novel Venetia, is a Pie “in which the bodies of chickens, pigeons, and rabbits, were embalmed in spices, cock’s combs, and savoury balls, and well bedewed with one of those rich sauces of claret, anchovy, and sweet herbs”. The novel further goes on to claim that the covering crust of the pie was adorned with a design that recalled the various animals used to create the filling. Creating a Pie that was in of itself a spectacle to behold was the most important order of the day, it seemed.
This is also the period in which it became customary for Game Pie to be served cold instead of hot, in addition to being some of the most ridiculously indulgent foodstuffs imaginable. An utterly enormous Game Pie was baked for the Earl of Sefton just at the turn of the 19th Century, containing a number of varieties of Game (all stuffed within each other, of course), and further combined with Truffles, Veal, Bacon, and likely other ingredients and herbs that have long since been lost to time. The meats were cooked first outside of the pie, cooled for a period with the use of ice, and placed in the pie crust before being cooked for a further three hours. Hot Aspic sauce was then poured into the pie at the end of the cooking process, and the pie was allowed to cool for one final time before being served. To some extent, the modern confection of the Pork Pie owes a lot to this period of over-the-top Game Pies!
Around the same time that this was going on, potters like Josiah Wedgwood completely revolutionised the cooking world by introducing processes that made it far easier to mass produced glazed pottery containers. Not only could these glazed pottery containers withstand the heat of conventional ovens, but the process devised to create them also meant that they were comparatively cheap and affordable. Likewise, the introduction of specifically designed Game Pie dishes were introduced, designed in such a was as to hold in the contents and often coming with an ornate design. Frequently the outer edges of these Game Pie dishes would display raised bas-relief ornaments of popular and/or traditional Game animals (often dead) and vine leaves, and the lids often had handles modelled on Hare’s feet or certain Root Vegetables. Another particularly notable development of this period were the Majolica wares, designed by the potter Herbert Minton and debuting in 1851. Especially ornate earthenware ceramics that featured stunning designs and brilliant glazes, they coincided with the gradual lifting of the Noble-only restrictions on many kinds of Game, leading to a number of middle class families that would proudly display Majolica wares as a means of showing that they had the means and connections to obtain Game meats legally and reputably, rather then through less-then-scrupulous means.
A big part of this change can be blamed on the development of the Middle Class; as they grew more in number and further established an identity for themselves, they began to aspire to social standings that were previously unavailable to them. So far as cooking was concerned, this was helped along thanks to the efforts of Potters like the previously mentioned Josiah Wedgwood and Herbert Minton, but even greater pioneers were yet to come. Alexis Soyer, an early example of a Celebrity Chef, became one of the single most popular- if not THE most popular- chef of his time in large part due to the innovations he brought to cooking as a whole. The single most important of these could arguably be his introduction of the idea of cooking with gas, something that was readily adopted by the masses. Mrs. Beeton further helped things along with her seminal work the Book Of Household Management, first published in 1861; contained within it were a number of recipes for far simpler Game Pies calling for grouse and partridge, as well as further information on the preparation of various common Game meats like Hare, Corn-Crake, and Pheasant. The Game Pie gradually lost it’s appeal amongst the upper echelons of society, conversely becoming further and further associated and beloved by the very people who at one point in time didn’t even have the legal right to hunt and eat the very things it was making these pies out of
And that gradually brings us into the modern age. Long gone are the days of the ultra-extravagant Game Pie, served only and grand feasts and spectacular events; these days, you’re most likely to find Game Pie at any number of restaurants across the country using any number of modern recipes with perhaps the most common often call for savoury stews and meats such as Rabbit, Venison, and Quail. Birds such as Thrush, Crows, and Pigeons have almost completely fallen out of favour among society as forms of edible Game. A lot of times, they’re even served without any real pastry shell, only including a Pie Crust laid atop- an example of this is a modern form of Game Pie that includes only a Puff Pastry cover added to the pie at the very last second.
These articles can be considered very brief rundowns on the surprisingly stunning history of the Game Pie. It stands as perhaps one of the most storied dishes in British culinary history, and likewise as one of the greatest examples of how culture and food are intertwined to such an extent, and how they often wind up impacting each other greatly as both change and reform around each other.