Delicious game pies
Just as a thieving magpie will steal odds and ends to hide in their nest, so we can hide our meaty odds and sods under a layer of tasty pastry, says Sarah Monier-Williams.
From four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in one, to the glorious harmony of pig and pastry that’s put Melton Mowbray on the map, the British fondness for pie has been well documented since the 14th century.
Surviving manuscripts from this era are rare, most effort being saved for the costly and saintly reproduction of Old Testaments.
We have a King and his unlimited purse of Royal bullion to thank for The Forme of Cury (The Rules of Cookery), a minor tome of medieval recipes. Commissioned by the despotic King Richard II, The Forme was a good, old-fashioned bout of Frenchie-bashing and an attempt to prove that English cuisine at the time was equal, if not far superior, to dishes served up at the French court by uber-chef Taillevent.
Detailing dishes of meat, fish and vegetables for “abstinence” (pie-free!) days, The Forme’s focus on the importance of a good pie and its place at royal banquets as a symbol of power is clear.
The royal pies of the 14th century often contained surprising amounts of sweetness alongside the meat, with currants, cinnamon and rare expensive saffron commonly added to illustrate status.
At the time, though, lard and ham would have been major players in even the most humble of pies: “Lat it feep with a gode qntite of white grece á súe it forth” (layer it deep with a good quantity of white fat and serve forth).
So if you weren’t born with a gold spoon in your mouth and half an eye on a crown, what else went into your pie? Basically, anything you liked.
The secret’s in the name, as our magpie of today was known as a straightforward “pye” or “pie” back in the day. Just as a thieving magpie will steal odds and ends to hide in their nest, so we can hide our meaty odds and sods under a layer of tasty pastry.
The pastry element of our beloved pies came a bit of a cropper in the 18th century as French flour imports to Britain were banned by Napoleon and UK crops failed in four consecutive years.
The “cofynes” of pastry containing bits of swan, blackbird, hare or starling had previously often been discarded, the focus being on the filling. No longer. Entrepreneur Josiah Wedgewood spied an opportunity and, with the Industrial Revolution enabling mass-production, he designed a ceramic pie dish with an external glaze which mimicked pastry.
Coupled with the new 1816 Game Laws, which made poaching a crime with seven-year transportation as punishment, game pie in its purest form fell out of favour.
With flour as cheap as chips in modern Britain and game commonly available again in our supermarkets, there’s no need to go all hunter-gatherer and shoot a heron to satisfy a pie craving.
There’s always the dilemma as to what to do with the gory game remnants from the previous season: game pie is the answer.
A quick glance in the bottom drawer of our garage freezer last week resembled the aftermath of the Battle of the Somme with some skinned rabbits, a couple of plucked and gutted pigeons, six brace of grouse in the feather and some unidentifiable randomly-diced carnage which might have been goat or sheep in a previous life.
Bypassing the moor’s finest and the mystery meat, I headed off to the village of Bampton and a proper butcher (www.patrickstrainge-butchers.co.uk).
Owner Ollie Weaver is our local go-to man for when you’ve accidentally clunked a fallow with your Land Rover, or finally had your rifle to hand as that bloody muntjac has gone for your purple sprouting (again).
He also turns out a fantastic hog roast and holds the accolade of being Britain’s youngest ever sausage-making champion.
Passionate about all things game and meaty, especially piggly-wigglys, Ollie only sells meat which has no growth additives and is locally reared, requiring travel of less than 10 miles from the farm to the shop. He also makes his own exemplary pork and game pies.
But the freezer had thrown down its chilly gauntlet. So, armed with some ethical Old-Spot pork shoulder, pork belly and home-smoked Applewood streaky bacon, I headed home.
To make a good pie, you’ve really got to channel your inner Mrs Patmore.
You’ll need a proper pinny to protect your tweed from all that flour dusting around and some strong forearms for kneading the pastry.
You must also be prepared to defend your finished pie against passing labradors, husbands and butlers cruising your kitchen for a satisfying meaty snack.
The rabbits and pigeons were stripped of their meat and the carcasses set to boil with juniper berries, bay leaves and a slice of bacon.
All the meat was diced into teeny pieces and, thanks to a few glasses of rather good Burgundy at lunch, I went a bit off-piste and stirred in some 1961 Bas Armagnac and a good handful of sage, fennel and parsley.
The pastry making part is a cinch and it’s up to you whether to go the whole hog and make a monster, or a pile of high-risk-of-snacking-thievery smaller pies.
Be brave and raise that hot water crust pastry by hand, or there’s always a spring-loaded cake tin for the lily-livered.
You don’t serve up game pies to mates who’ve gone the full Deliciously Ella. She seriously looks like she needs feeding up, but I don’t think even Gwyneth Paltrow is worthy of a game pie.
You dish up game pie to hungry, Dubarry-shod men and women who’ve spent time in the field working up an appetite. The appreciation you’ll receive on dishing up a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, lard-soaked, serotonin-reuptake-inhibiting slice of game pie at a shooting lunch is more reliable than a gaffe from Prince Philip on a royal visit or a Percy with a 12 bore.
Layer it deep and serve forth, I say!