Friday, 18 March 2016

The Life of Pie

Our snack foods have been around for far longer than most of us imagine ..... for example, whilst the Earl of Sandwich has given his name to two bits of bread, placed on either side of some meat (or other substances), its extremely unlikely that this was the first time this combination of bread and food was tried.

In ancient times, from ancient Sumer to Pharaonic Egypt, urban living brought street foods into existence. For instance, for most city living Roman citizens, they resided in what were the first 'high-rise, high occupancy apartment blocks', aka flats, all of which rarely had cooking facilities, and the occupants therefore depended on street food vendors for many of their meals.

This street meal was usually something simple, such as bread soaked in wine, or dipped in olive oil, or even fish oil, and eaten as a quick standing snack for breakfast or the midday meal from a stall. They would then more than likely enjoy a meal of cooked vegetable with stews later on, in a 'Popina'. This was a simple type of drinking establishment, opening out onto the street and which were the quick food establishments of the time e.g. wine bars with simple menu's.

Crabby Pattys - Snack Food.

So it was during these early civilisations that many of the food types which we still have, were developed. So for instance, Egyptian sailors carried a flat brittle bread loaf of millet bread called a 'dhourra cake', for use at sea in open ships and boats, while the Roman sailors had a biscuit called a 'buccellum' ... A Roman cookbook called the 'Apicius' describes it as "a thick paste of fine wheat flour which was boiled and spread out on a plate. When it had dried and hardened, it was cut up and then fried until crisp, then served with honey and pepper." ... the principle of a super hard, baked biscuit, for sailors, was retained in the form of 'hardtack', and which British sailors ate well up until the 19th and 20th centuries.

Another common food with a long antecedent are pies, which have also been around for millennia .... the earliest form of pies, were usually flat, round crusty cakes sometimes called 'galettes', and which consisted of a crust of ground oats or other local cereals, often containing honey as the sweet treat inside.

These later developed into a form of early sweet pastry, and can be seen illustrated on the tomb walls of the Pharaoh Ramesses II, from around 1236 BC. Of course the pies were not all sweet pastries, and sometime in the Kingdom of Sumer, and at least prior to 2000 BC, a recipe for 'chicken pie' was written on a tablet.

The first pie pastry is believed to be a Greek concept, but as inveterate seafarers, they may have come across the recipe anywhere in the Mediterranean. The earliest mention of pie pastry comes from the 5th century BC, and the Greeks certainly recognised a distinction between a 'Baker' and a 'Pastry cook' .... of course the Romans retained the idea, and often made plain pastries, to cover pans of baked meats and or fowls, in order to retain in the meats flavours and juices.

The Roman Empire spread this idea far and wide (including well outside their empire). So even with the end of the empire, the 'pie' concept was retained in all the former empire provinces .... they often developed local names such as 'Coffyns' and 'Traps', which were because they often used reusable earthenware containers for the food (to reduce flour usage). 'Pyes' were mentioned in England as early as the 12th century ... and were well known by the 14th and 15th century, when a "Partryche and Pecock enhackyll" pie was described in 1429 AD.

By 1566, The London Livery Company Pie Feasts Were OTT.

We still have pastry topped pie dishes now, especially with some types of hotpot. Of course the Cornish miners later took both these sweet and meat culinary strands, and created traditional Cornish Pasties, in which they had a meat or vegetable filling at one end, and a sweet filling at the other, all in the same quick pastry contained meal.

Later on in the medieval period, major urban conurbations in Europe would have vendors who sold dishes such as pies, pasties, flans, waffles, wafers, pancakes and cooked meats and we have never lost these food ideas, and have even added some such as hot-dog's and curries.

Finally, even the humble beef burger, which we often think of as being quintessentially an 'American foodstuff', has much of its roots in antiquity. The Romans has a recipe for ‘Isicia Omentata’, which when cooked, looks a lot like a modern meat burger.

Romans Liked A Snack Food ... ‘Isicia Omentata’

The recipe used minced pork, which was flavoured with some form of pepper, wine and 'Garum' (a rich fish sauce which Romans loved), and then served with a wine sauce covering. It was not known to be an everyday meal (more of a luxury which was usually served as a part of a feast), but this understanding may change, as archaeology uncovers more ancient sites.

Again, the end of the Roman Empire, that didn't mean the foods eaten for hundreds of years simply disappeared, and they were all still cooked by the natives and invaders alike. Medieval versions of many of the meals with ancient antecedents went on, but were known by different names, with burgers known as 'rissoles and pompeys' in England.

Roman Burgers - Isicia Omentata - Looks Like A Modern 'Patty'

By the Georgian period, fried and flavoured minced meat 'patties or rissoles', were common street foods. The Georgians were also influential in establishing 'catsup', using tomatoes, and which would later in the Victorian period, become tomato ketchup. They also picked vegetables (including cucumber), which is related to the modern gherkin ..... although I don't know anyone who actually eats the gherkin.Incedentally when I was a kid I loved savoury rissoles, which were distinctly not burgers.

Later, the Victorians ate a version of meat patties called 'minced collops' (which is a great sounding name), but of course it was in Victorian America that the first genuine hamburgers appeared, when the minced beef patties became popular in restaurants and at home. In 1890, the word ‘hamburger’ first appeared in print – it almost certainly comes from the ‘Hamburg steak’, which was an American dish of flattened fried meat balls served in the 1870's and 1880's. On an aside, when I was a kid we often had rissoles for tea (evening meal), and they were a distinct item from burgers, with a soft, finely ground meat, with a breadcrumb coating aka 'savoury rissoles'.

Anyway, if we are what we eat, then we are a lot more ancient than we think.


  1. Savoury Rissoles were a Birds Eye product. I just googled them, and no one stocks them, nor do they appear on their website, so lost forever it seems. Pity I liked them as well.

    1. yeah .... lots of good stuff gone. Does anyone remember Aztec Bars? .... came out in 1967 and again in a limited edition in 2000 AD

    2. Aztec Bars rings a bell but I couldn't say what they were like.

    3. Milk chocolate, nougatine and caramel ... super Mars bar.

  2. Rissoles sounds as suspect as faggots, which I used to like.

    1. You can still get them .... and I like them as well (with Chips and peas).

    2. Faggots are still sold by Mr Brains and are described as from the South West and Midlands circa 1851.


    3. Yes, definitely with peas, I'll have to see if I can get any.

    4. I think I saw them at Asda and Morrisons (other stores are available).


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