History of pie

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"Recipe for placenta:
Materials, 2 pounds of wheat flour for the crust, 4 pounds of flour and 2 pounds of prime groats for the tracta. Soak the groats in water, and when it becomes quite soft pour into a clean bowl, drain well, and knead with the hand; when it is thoroughly kneaded, work in the 4 pounds of flour gradually. From this dough make the tracta, and spread them out in a basket where they can dry; and when they are dry arrange them evenly. Treat each tractum as follows: After kneading, brush them with an oiled cloth, wipe them all over and coat with oil. When the tracta are moulded, heat thoroughly the hearth where you are to bake, and the crock. Then moisten the 2 pounds of flour, knead, and make of it a thin lower crust. Soak 14 pounds of sheep's cheese (sweet and quite fresh) in water and macerate, changing the water three times. Take out a small quantity at a time, squeeze out the water thoroughly with the hands, and when it is quite dry place it in a bowl. When you have dried out the cheese completely, knead it in a clean bowl by hand, and make it as smooth as possible. Then take a clean flour sifter and force the cheese through it into the bowl. Add 4 1/2 pounds of fine honey, and mix it thoroughly with the cheese. Spread the crust on a clean board, one foot wide, on oiled bay leaves, and form the placenta as follows: Place a first layer of separate tracta over the whole crust, cover it with the mixture from the bowl, add the tracta one by one, covering each layer until you have used up all the cheese and honey. On the top place single tracta, and then fold over the crust and prepare the hearth . . . then place the placenta, cover with a hot crock, and heap coals on top and around. See that it bakes thoroughly and slowly, uncovering two or three times to examine it. When it is done, remove and spread with honey. This will make a half-modius cake."[1]

Pie is often thought to be American in origin, as in "American Pie" but in actuality pie has a long history. In medieval England, "pyes" were usually savory - filled with beef, lamb, wild duck, magpie or pigeon — and spiced with pepper, currants or dates. However the Greeks are thought to have invented the pastry shell, made by combining water and flour. Meat pies were often part of Roman dessert courses (secundae mensea). Cato the Elder (234 – 149 BCE) gave a recipe for a cheesecake-like dish called 'placenta' in his treatise De Agricultura.[2]

The earliest recorded reference to apple pie is from 1590 [3], but a recipe for 'Tartys in Applis' is included in a cookbook compiled in about 1390 by the master cooks of King Richard II. [4]

The purpose of a pie was to serve as a baking dish holding a savory filling. Pies were often baked in "coffins" a word that actually meant basket or box. Savory meat fillings were poured into a tall tin that had a sealable lid. Other pies were baked without a container and the pie shell itself was the container. These pies were called "traps". Pie shells often took the place of today's casserole dishes as their function was to contain the filling and the pastry was thick to allow long hours of cooking. Small pies are called tartlets and a large open-faced pie is called a tart.

Neolithic Pies

Around 9,500 BC the Egyptians baked free-form pies called galettes. Ingredients used could include oat, wheat, rye and barley. Honey was used as a filling and the pie was baked over hot coals. [5]

Four and twenty blackbirds....

The English nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence, thought to date from in the 18th century, includes the lines "four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie/when the pie was opened the birds began to sing...". [6] In the Epulario (The Italian Banquet), by Giovanne De Rosselli, published in 1598, is a recipe for making a pie "That the Birds May Be Alive In them and Flie Out When It Is Cut Up." ("Make the coffin of a great pie or pastry, in the bottome thereof make a hole as big as your fist, or bigger if you will, let the sides of the coffin bee somwhat higher then ordinary pies, which done put it full of flower and bake it, and being baked, open the hole in the bottome, and take out the flower. Then having a pie of the bigness of the hole in the bottome of the coffin aforesaid, you shal put it into the coffin, withall put into the said coffin round about the aforesaid pie as many small live birds as the empty coffin will hold, besides the pie aforesaid. And this is to be at such time as you send the pie to the table, and set before the guests: where uncovering or cutting up the lid of the great pie, all the birds will flie out, which is to delight and pleasure shew to the company.")[7]


  1. De Agricultura by Cato the Elder published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1934 The text is in the public domain.
  2. Pie, Lara Mayer Time Nov. 26, 2008
  3. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology
  4. [http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/foc/ The Forme of Cury A Roll Of Ancient English Cookery, Compiled, about A.D. 1390, by the Master-Cooks of King Richard II,Presented afterwards to Queen Elizabeth, by Edward Lord Stafford
  5. Stradley, Linda. History of Pie. Retrieved on 2011-08-10.
  6. Sing a Song of Sixpence is listed in the Roud folk song index as number 13191.
  7. Rosselli, Giovanne De Epulario, or the Italian Banquet Wherein Is Shewed the Maner How to Dresse and Prepare All Kind of Flesh, Foules or Fishes. as Also How to Make Sauces, Tartes, Pies. with an Addition of Many Other Profitable and Necessary Things (1598) ISBN 9781171324461