Pork Pie Charmed

In British culinary culture, savory meat pies are very popular both as pocket snacks and as stand-alone meals. There are steak and pies, pastries filled with -braised bulk (not to be confused with Steak and kidney pies, pastries filled with a mixture of bulk and chopped offal); there is of course the shepherd’s pie, a crowd favorite in the islands; there are pies stuffed with all kinds of animals and less common fish and poultry — for example, the eel pie and the Squab pie – and there is the Fidget pie, which is more of a bacon pie than a real pie, stuffed with slices of smoked meat, apple and sometimes onions and potatoes. Meat pies are very present in British-influenced popular culture – think of Mrs. Lovett’s meat pie shop in Sweeney Todd and the old nursery rhyme “Sing A Song of six Pence”, which tells the story of “four and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie”.”

But the round and chunky pork cake is undoubtedly the most English of all. Usually produced and consumed in the eastern half of England, it is rarely seen in Scotland, Wales or even in the West Country.

The ideal pork cake has a bowl of hot water dough that has been baked until golden brown with an equally browned lid wrapped around the edge. It should have a meaty filling of coarsely chopped pork, heavily seasoned with salt and pepper, plus the baker’s secret (and often complex) combination of herbs and spices, all enclosed in a thin wonky jelly layer of a rich broth. Sarah Pettegree, pork pie connoisseur and owner of Norfolk-based Bray’s Cottage Pork Pies, writes to me that most cake makers have kept the spice combinations for meat and jelly equally strict; the meat mixture can include anything from mace to anchovies, and the jelly can be boiled with vegetables, the closer you get to the mass-produced end of the pork pie spectrum, the more finely ground and less seasoned the meat filling will be.

The history of pork pie is confusing and often contradictory. The first recorded recipe for Proto-pork pie appears in the medieval manuscript known as the forme of Cury, attributed to the royal chefs of the park of Richard II and first published around 1390. A careful examination of the now digitized collection of recipes reveals that the recipe for “Pork Mylates” is most reminiscent of pork pie, as it contains minced pork (“hewe pork al to pecys”) and is baked in a bowl of rudimentary dough. However, there are crucial differences, such as the addition of cheese and eggs to the seasoned pork mixture, as well as the explicit request for Saffron from the recipe. Although it may be a borderline Quiche rather than a pork pie, the bones of the modern dish are there.

Pettegree suggests another 14th-century recipe as a candidate for the original pork cake: the aptly named “Pork Pye,” printed in Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England from 1954. the recipe calls for pork, as well as mace and other spices; the dish can be enjoyed hot or cold, but the addition of currants distinguishes it from our savory versions today. However, Laura Mason, a food historian and author of several books on British cuisine, remains skeptical about the reliability of this recipe, noting that Hartley’s research collection methods have recently come under scrutiny.

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