My favourite symbol of Georgian Christmas abundance has to be the Christmas Pie. Not to be confused with small minced pies of mostly dried fruit, this pie is a monster – a battlemented fantasy of plenty weighing as much as 15 stones. Stuffed with increasing sizes of game, from small birds to rabbits to geese and turkeys, it was built to feed famished crowds. And in times when Christmas could last twelve days or longer it was baked to last, thanks to an airtight layer of butter poured in through its spout-hole.
The earliest recipes reflect the medieval mix of meat, spice and fruit and give directions for artful pastry decorations of leaves, birds and animals. Some pies must have been of gargantuan size, as legend tells of Geoffrey of Monmouth encountering one and ‘sheltering within its capacious crust’. When the Puritans banned the Christmas Pie they didn’t mince their words, according to Pimlott’s The Englishman’s Christmas. It was denounced as ‘an invention of the scarlet whore of Babylon, an hodge podge of supersition, Popery, the Devil and all his works,’ recalled The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1733. By the late eighteenth century there was talk of its decline as sophisticated city dwellers disdained the old traditions. But in the countryside the annual ‘open house’ at country estates could still be found, with old and young gathering at groaning boards to feast and drink at their landlord’s expense. Like the gathering for Father Giles’s feast of 1800, the Christmas Pie was fat, generous and rustic, created for sharing at a long table and eating with gusto. In 1770 a pie had been baked in Newcastle that was said to be nearly nine feet in circumference and was ‘neatly fitted with a case and four small wheels to facilitate its use to every guest that inclines to partake of its contents at table.’ That sounds like a rather handy edible hostess trolley to me...
In An Appetite for Violets my cook heroine Biddy Leigh repeats a common saying of the day, that ‘Nothing is busier than English ovens at Christmas.’ In the book I recreate a Christmas feast for fifty people; a communal task undertaken on fiery spits, peppered with mishaps (scalding fat, fire and falls) and sweetened with traditions (kissing boughs and singing carols in rounds). The early drafts needed a ruthless diet before publication, so carried away did I become by a menu of lost delights such as Yule cakes, crucifix engraved cheeses and plum pottage.
By the Victorian era giant pies merited a feature in the newspapers, a sure sign that the old tradition was dying. The magnificent pie baked for a Royal Banquet at Windsor castle in 1857, was borne by four bewhiskered footmen and preceded by another medieval relic, the boar’s head on a platter. An accompanying illustration showed the larder at Windsor, replete with shelves of hanging game and white-coated male chefs.
Nowadays vast Christmas Pies seem only to be found in historic recreation, for instance at www.historicfood.com. No longer do we say, ‘He hath eaten many a Christmas Pie’ - presumably an early variant of ‘Who ate all the pies?’
In ending I’d like to offer some advice from seventeenth century poet George Wither’s Christmas Carol:
Without the door let sorrow lie,
And if for cold it hap to die,
We'll bury it in a Christmas pie,
And evermore be merry.
May all your sorrows be buried in good Christmas eating and have a very Merry Christmas!
Make a standing crust of 24 pounds of the finest flour, six pounds butter, half a pound rendered suet and raise in an oval with very thick walls and sturdy bottom. Bone each of a turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge and a pigeon and lay one inside the other along with mace, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Then have a hare ready stewed in joints along with its gravy, woodcocks, more game and whatsoever wild birds you can get. Lay them as close as you can get and put at least four pounds of butter in the pie. Make your lid pretty thick and lay on flowers or such Christmas shapes as you wish on the lid around a hole in the middle. Rub it all over with yolks of egg and bind it round with paper and lay the same over the top. It will take four hours baking in a bread oven. When it comes out melt two pounds of butter in the gravy that come from the hare and pour it hot in the pie through the hole.
From ‘An Appetite for Violets’ by Martine Bailey
(This blog article was first published on History Lives 2014)