“Pie making used to be an art form,” exclaims Ivan Day. “There was a pan-European school of pastry that ran from the 17th to the 19th century. And we’ve forgotten the lot. The modern British pie is mass produced and awful. It’s a landfill site for all the rubbish that’s left over.”
Ivan should know. He is a leading food historian, whose expertise is sought by groups as diverse as the National Trust and the Hollywood film industry. He even advised Scorsese on food for King William IV’s birthday scene in The Young Victoria – and made it all.
My six companions and I were sitting in his 16th-century farmhouse in Shap on the edge of the Lake District. We were there for a two-day pie and pastry making course, one of a number that Ivan runs on historic food. Laid out in front of us were an array of valuable old books. “These are some of the most important books ever written in the English language about pies,” he says. They begin with The Accomplished Cook, written by Robert May in 1660, and end with Frederick Vine’s Savoury Pastry written in 1900.
The illustrations show intricate pie designs, including deer, boar, salmon, doves and leaves, as well as geometric patterns from the period. “This was edible art. It wasn’t just meat and pastry. It was a lifestyle,” says Ivan. And British food, certainly the food of the nobility, was as good as any in Europe. “It was only in the last 150 years that English food has been considered inferior,” he says.
In the kitchen, the range had been lit since early morning, warming up the oven for the day’s pie baking, and there was a wonderful smell of wood smoke in the air. Walls were adorned with an array of culinary utensils, all of them antique, many quite rare, and all collected by Ivan over the last 50 years. Many of them are brought into action during his courses. Next to the range and firmly attached to the wall was a spitack from 1700, which he uses for his meat roasting course.
Soon we were up to our elbows in flour, water, eggs and butter, discovering the subtle variations in pastries of the time. Pastry was not always made for consumption. The less fat – or shortening – used, the less edible the pastry, but the more able it is to be raised into a solid structure. Decorative pastry designs were hugely popular at banquets for the rich, and a solid, sealed pie could last for days or even weeks if the ingredients were cooked well enough – a necessity in the time before refrigeration. Often the top would be cut off, the insides scooped out and the case discarded. Occasionally the same case was even refilled.
Hungry for history
As we worked, Ivan regaled us with interesting facts and cultural references to food of the period. His knowledge of his subject is encyclopedic, yet he had no official training. “There’s nobody alive that could have taught me this stuff,” he says. “Everybody concentrates on recipes, and it gives you a blinkered vision. Some of the best evidence comes from paintings, and plates from books of the time. Even from contemporary poetry.”
He began studying botany and moved to the Lake District to work on the lichens of the area. But his love of the history of food began long before that when, at the age of 13, he ran into a bookshop to shelter from the rain, picked up an early book on British cookery to avoid being thrown out, and bought it. From that moment on he began collecting the literature and the culinary utensils that comprise his unique collection.
Over the weekend we produced a wonderful Victorian raised pie, a stag (venison) pie, a lumber pie (made with meats such as veal and chicken,and fruits such as dates, grapes and barberries), chewitts (a small pie and the ancestor of the British pork pie, though pork was not always used) and mince pies, most of which we ate for lunch or dinner. The food was exquisite, but then consider the ingredients of just the mince pies alone: minced veal, sultanas, raisins, currants, chopped dates, grated apple, mixed peel, suet, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, mace, rose water and a large amount of brandy, sherry and sugar. No wonder the smell of them baking will bring people right into the kitchen.