The Tudors, despite all their faults (and there were many, so very, very many!), were inordinately fond of their food and were very open-minded when it came to new and novel food-stuffs. Their pies were magnificent, sculptured and garnitured pieces of edible art. But to be totally honest, such perfection was only available at the top end of the market where cost was no object!
When Elizabeth I, the last Tudor died ‘without heir of body’ the crown passed to her cousin James (VI of Scotland, I of England) and the very life of the country was shaken to the bones! For King James inherited a treasury that had been so severely depleted by his predecessors that only an increase in taxes could hope to relieve the situation (Does the scenario sound somewhat familiar in modern day politics?)
The Crown, despite all its lands, holdings and international influence, was effectively destitute! As a result, the Stuarts were in a fine posiition to see the division between rich and poor became a chasm of Grand Canyon proportions! Food took up to four-fifths of an ordinary family’s budget while the only recourse for the meek and humble was to utilise every morsel. Salted fish and meat, hard cheese, coarse bread and the indefatigable pie became essentials. Pottage (a plain, rough gruel or thin soup) became vital in the diet of the lower echelons of society. (Although ale was still cheap and still being consumed in vast quantities).
A catastrophic civil war, the execution of a King and a disastrous foray into Republicanism under Oliver Cromwell, meant that by the end of the 17th century it has been estimated that only half of the population could afford to eat meat every day. Of the lower half only 30% could afford meat between 2 and 5 times a week, while the bottom 20% would be lucky to eat meat once, possibly twice, a week. For the most part food continued to be cooked over open fires, while bread, pies and pastries were baked in simple brick ovens.
Another factor in the holding back of the ‘proper’ development of the pie, likewise bread, was that throughout the Stuart reign, famine was still an ever present hazard, particularly in remote country areas. About one harvest in six failed and the shortages led to riots and looting in the worst affected areas.
But times were changing, wars in far flung countries were becoming less frequent, while more wealth was seeping in through ‘the Foreign Possessions’
Within Europe as a whole agricultural techniques and methods were improving dramatically. Essentially the civil war changed the political landscape. True, the landed gentry and ‘inherited’ wealth still controlled much of the finance, but a new class of nouveau riche was arising. The entrepreneur, the creator of better and more efficient farming methods, found a place in the Stuart society.
London’s ever increasing demands for more constant supplies of fruit, vegetables, milk, butter, eggs and meat created a need for new techniques. Different types of crop were experimented with, and new breeds of sheep and cattle developed, along with the use of properly organised crop rotation and new machinery such as seed drills.
So how, I hear you say, could that possibly affect the humble pie? Well, as anyone who bakes or eats bread will tell you, the quality and style of that bread depends entirely on the grain used, the amount of grain used (a surplus will reduce cost) and the degree of refinement.
Add to that improvements in animal husbandry, which meant a better, more consistent, quality of meat coming on to market, more competent cooks and more money flowing into the system rather than the into coffers of the rich change was inevitable!
But the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw two further developments that took the pie into a different class of comestible.
To answer those I shall have to return to the source of my original post and ‘sing another song of sixpence . . .’
Watch this space!