Mini medieval ‘grete pyes’, by Dr Ruth J. Salter

Back in November, during the drinks reception ahead of our annual Stenton Lecture, I got chatting to our social media maven, Chessie Baldwin. Talk turned to History’s blog and what we’d be doing as our Christmas series this year … at some point in our conversation I mentioned the possibility making a medieval recipe and ‘tweaking’ it for a twenty-first century Christmas and thus the premise behind this blog post formed. But what to make? Well, why not a medieval great pie, or ‘grete pye’ to give it the Middle English spelling!1

This post is not, I should stress early on, is not a ‘history of medieval Christmas’. I have in previous years discussed medieval Christmas celebrations in more detail and am mindful not to replicate myself here. Nor is this post an attempt at providing a cook-a-long for making your own ‘grete pye’. Rather it should be seen as a light read and an encouragement, to all who want to, to have some fun in the kitchen this festive season. With that said, on to the pye!

John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, dines with the king of Portugal (London, British Library, Royal MS 14 E IV, f. 244v).

Medieval ‘great pyes’

A ‘grete pye’ was a staple of a medieval Christmas feast. The specific ingredients could differ depending on maker, availability, personal taste etc., but the key elements were various meats, dried fruits, and spices (I hope the need for pastry goes without saying!)

The recipe for this version of a ‘grete pye’ was recorded in a mid-fifteenth century cook book (now BL, Harley MS 4016), in the twentieth century it was published in an edition of medieval recipes edited by Thomas Austin, before then being published alongside a modern interpretation in Black’s The Medieval Cookbook, (British Museum Press). The late-medieval recipe can be found below, but I am very grateful to Black for the modernised version which includes measurements and cooking times which meant this was a lot less trial and error.

Grete pyes. Take faire yonge beef, And suet of a fatte beste, or of Motton, and hak all this on a horde small; And caste thereto pouder of peper and salt; And whan it is small hewen, put hit in a bolle, And medle hem well; then make a faire large Cofyn, and couche som of this stuffur in. Then take Capons, Hennes, Mallardes, Connynges, and parboile hem clene; take wodekokkes, teles, grete briddes, and plom hem in a boiling potte; And then couche al this fowle in the Coffyn, And put in euerych of hem a quantite of pouder of peper and salt. Then take mary, harde yolkes of egges. Dates cutte in ij. peces, reisons of coraunce, prunes, hole clowes, hole maces, Canell, and saffron. But first, whan thou hast cowched all thi foule, ley the remenaunt of thyne other stuffur of beef a-bought hem, as thou thenkest goode; and then strawe on hem this: dates, mary, and reysons, &c. And then close thi Coffyn with a lydde of the same paast, And putte hit in the oven. And late hit bake ynogh ; but be ware, or thou close hit, that there come no saffron nygh the brinkes there-of, for then hit wol neuer close.

‘A grete’ pye’, cited in Black, The Medieval Cookbook, p. 118.

Having looked through the recipe, and Black’s reworking of it, I made the decision to go for chicken and sausage meat as the two meat options. For the dried fruits I went with equal portions of ‘coraunce’ (currants), prunes, dates and apricots – the latter adding a little colour to the mix. I followed Black’s guidance on spices and made up a blend of cinnamon and mace with a pinch of ‘clowes’ (cloves).

As for the pie crust itself, I have a confession to make, I used shop-bought pastry! Any bakers reading this are likely tutting at me right now, I know! I would usually make my own shortcrust pastry, but for time and ease this worked well and, after all, the pie ‘coffyn’ was hardly the star of this show.

In forming the pastry ‘coffyn’, and with Chrisitmas celebrations in mind, I made the choice to move away from the ‘grete’ in size pye for mini ‘grete pyes’ that would be more suitable for party nibbles. Gone are the days of sitting down to a great medieval feast and I wanted to make these pyes a more practical (and hopefully somewhat less messy) festive offering.

Making the pyes smaller (I used a cupcake tin) also meant adjusting the method. This was not going to be the large pye envisaged either by our fifteenth-century cook or by Black with repeated layers of spiced minced meat, egg yolks and dried fruits, and boiled meats that should bake slowly in the oven. My mini pyes would bake to a crisp if I tried that! Instead, I pre-cooked the filling – ‘parbolie’ (poaching) the chicken as per the recipe before mixing it in with the cooked sausage meat, spices, and fruits. The pastry was then rolled out and the mini pyes shaped, filled, and the ‘coffyn’ lids put on (making sure to give these and egg wash and pierce them to let steam escape). The pyes were then popped in to the over (fan, 200oC) for around 15 minutes until they were cooked through and golden on top.

Cooks preparing food in the Luttrell Psalter (London, British Library, Add MS 42130, f. 207r).

The finished product was, I’ll be honest, a little ‘rustic’ looking, and despite piercing the lids and sealing the lid to the base, a few pies did open up while in the oven. However, the smell of the meats and spices cooking definitely had that Christmas feel to them, and for my first attempt at making these I’m pretty pleased. I’ve even got some left-over pie filling to make another batch with.

As for the taste, I was pleasantly surprised, but a good cook always listens to others too, so I decided to find some taste testers in the History department: Anne Lawrence, Elizabeth Matthew, Jacqui Turner, and Emily West were the lucky (?!) guineapigs. Despite my trepidations, the pyes went down well (so much so I left the remaining pyes with them).

Will I be adding grete pye(s) to my collection of Christmas recipes in future years? Yes! I’d like to add a few fresh herbs in too just to balance the flavours out but these were surprisingly easy to make and definitely worked well on a ‘mini’ scale making them an excellent option for a festive social gathering and they bring something new (old?) to the table!

[1] This blog is also published on Ruth’s personal blog platform, so take a look for more medieval treats and tales!  

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