When is a pie not a pie? Pie’tition launched to change definition

PUBLISHED: 08:55 07 March 2013 | UPDATED: 08:55 07 March 2013

Sarah Pettegree of Bray's Cottage at the North Norfolk Food & Drink Festival held in the grounds of Holkham Hall. Picture: Ian Burt

Sarah Pettegree of Bray's Cottage at the North Norfolk Food & Drink Festival held in the grounds of Holkham Hall. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant © 2012

It began as a clever way to make leftovers portable – the pastry-based precursor to the lunchbox.

Believed to hail from Egyptian origins, the first pies or “coffyns” appear in British literature in the 12th century and used to involve inedible pastry which was merely a container for a meaty stew.

It would be 200 years before the container itself became good to eat and many more before anyone but the aristocracy enjoyed a pie that contained anything other than offal (or “umbles”, hence humble pie).

Game pies first entered the oven in 1500, followed by pork pies in 1600 although it would be a 230-year wait until the pork pie’s jelly was added to the recipe.

Much debate has raged about the exact constituents of a “proper” pie.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes a pie as: “a baked dish of fruit, or meat and vegetables, typically with a top and base of pastry” which for many rules the shepherd’s and cottage pies as misnomers.

Is a dish with a lattice-top of pastry a pie or a tart? Is a shepherd’s pie, with its mashed potato topping, a pie or a bake? Does a casserole topped with a pastry lid constitute a pie or is it simply a stew wearing a hat?

Country pub group Vintage Inns has – in the middle of British Pie Week, which runs until Sunday – launched a ‘pie’tition aimed to save the shepherd’s pie and fish pie from the ignominy of being classed as “fake” pies.

“It seems somewhat unfair to us that pies have to have a pastry lid to be officially classed as a pie,” said a spokesman. “What about an apple pie with a lattice lid? Surely they are as deserving of a ‘proper pie’ classification as anything with a pastry top?

“We want equality for the classic shepherd’s pie, fish pie and all those other fantastic pies which, until now, have been regarded by the experts as poor pie cousins of those with pastry lids.

“We are inviting people to have their vote in our pie debate, asking whether shepherd’s pie should be classed as a pie or should change its name to ‘crust’. If enough people vote for a pie, we will campaign to get the definition of pies changed.”

Shepherd’s crust? Somehow it doesn’t have quite the same home-cooked, traditional ring to it.

The Country, Land and Business Association is equally keen to safeguard the pie and for people to support local pie producers –regardless of their pastry, mash or lattice preferences.

“Every pound spent in smaller independent local food outlets supports three times the number of jobs than if it were spent in national grocery chains, so not only will it boost the local economy but it could actually make pie shopping more enjoyable,” said CLA East director Nicola Currie.

“Local pubs and shops contribute a great deal to the economic health of our area but are under threat not just from large supermarkets but also the boom in internet shopping.

“Buying locally can help ensure that local businesses survive and maintain vital jobs and services – even through the quieter times of the year.”

The undisputed Pie Queen of Norfolk, Sarah Pettegree, produces the award-winning Bray’s Cottage Pork Pies, described by Giles Coren as the “perfect pork pie” and containing the best North Norfolk pork, a secret blend of herbs and spices and hotwater crust pastry.

“There are people who need everything categorised and ordered, who demand to have a definite definition of something – I am not one of those people,” she said.

“I think there have always been all sorts of pies that have always been called pies regardless of whether they’re encased in pastry, just have a pastry lid or are covered in mash. For me, it’s just about whether a pie tastes nice: it’s as simple as that.

“We have pork pie purists who tell us that our pies – which don’t include any jelly – aren’t ‘real’ pork pies but we’ve never done everything by the book. I don’t think anyone could argue that our pork pies aren’t pies, though – they’re encased in pastry, so we’re safe on that front!

“I think it’s important to be interested in what you eat and to demand high standards but to start dictating what is and isn’t a pie based on pastry seems to me to be a bit over the top.

“I sometimes have a bit of a laugh with people who tell me that they don’t like pork pies – I explain to them that our pork pies aren’t like ‘normal’ pork pies. I tell them that they’re actually Tarte du Porc…”

For more details on the ‘pie’tition visit

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