Unlike American pies, which pretty much come in one shape (think classic apple pie in a tin plate), British pies come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. It seems that everything enclosed (or half enclosed) in a pastry shell is called a pie.
Country of origin: UK
What is in a pie
Pie, in general, is a baked dish with a crust encasing a filling. Pies can be sweet (apple pie) or savory (pork pie, steak pie, etc.) They can be baked in a dish or free standing on their own. Free standing pies look like a stack of hockey pucks!
So depends on what you are in the mood for, there is a pie for you.
A Brief history
The British have a long history of baking. But they did not invent the first pie; the Egyptians did. The Romans also made pies and likely to be the ones that brought them to the British Isle.
Pies appear in recorded British history as early as the 12th century. At that time, the crust was referred to as “coffyn”. The coffyn was merely a vessel for what resides inside. But over time, as the techniques and flavor profiles improve, the outer layer become more edible and palatable.
Various regions of the UK have developed different pie specialties. It all depends on the local agricultural scene . For example, in Cornwall, housewives made star-gazy pies, at a time when pilchards (adult sardines) were plentiful. In Scotland, mutton is the main filler in its Scotch pies. Overall, steak & kidney and steak & ale pies are both very popular everywhere in the UK.
Interesting facts about pies
Every year, pie makers compete in British Pie Awards during British Pie Week. There are 20+ categories in this annual pie-off event. This stuff is serious!
One thing that takes this uninitiated American eater some time to get use to is that many of these pies are supposed to be eaten cold. Cold, as in, room temperature or right out of the fridge, never ever hot out of the oven. About half of the pie categories at the Pie Awards are judged and supposedly eaten cold. How quirky!
But trust history and the power of food evolution! This cold meat encased in rich pastry is delicious.
A few traditional pies
Here is a list of pies that I have compiled that I aim to try. Some are classic pairing of ingredients, others are local specialities.
The name is a bit of a misnomer today as the pie no longer has minced meat in it. Mince pie started out life as a way to use up precious meat about to go rancid. To disguise the strong flavor and smell, old recipes called for lots and lots of spices. Nowadays, it remains a spiced pie (no meat) popular during the Christmas season.
Melton Mowbray Pork Pie
This geographically protected pie (EU PGI ) is so popular that it is mass produced and available in supermarkets. You can read about the history and my experience with this savory treat here.
Steak & Ale Pie
As a beer brewing/drinking country, the UK has a long history of beer making. So it’s not totally surprising to use this dark liquid to tenderize the meat and infuse the pies with flavors.
Steak & Kidney Pie
Bramley Apple Pie
Bramley apples are native to the British Isle. Similar to Granny Smith apples for American apple pie, they are quite sour.
This is another geographically protected (PGI) pie progeny. All Cornish pasties are made in Cornwall in accordance with strict guidelines. They, however, do not need to be baked in Cornwall. So you can enjoy fresh Cornish pasties in London or elsewhere without having to get to Cornwall.
In the UK, shepherd’s pie usually refers to a lamb pie, while a cottage pie is made with beef. These are open-face pies, topped with mashed potatoes.
Where to experience an authentic British pies
Pies are literally everywhere in the UK (and in its former colonies too!). You can find them in the supermarket or takeout/take away shops or in fine dining restaurants. You will also encounter them in farmers markets all around town. These are often ready to eat for the grab-and-go crowd.
At the very least, I suggest trying a Melton Mowbray pork pie. If you are in London, Mrs. King’s at Borough Market offers authentic Melton Mowbray pork pies. Otherwise, you can find them in supermarkets as well.