Meat Pies: The History
Pies are usually thought to have their place at the dessert table. In theory, however, pastry dough can be filled with anything; enter the savoury meat pie.
Evidence of meat pies can be found in Ancient Greece, when the Greeks made pastes out of flour and water and filled them with meats to be fried or cooked over coals. The Romans drew inspiration and filled them with various meats and seafood, although the pastry wasn’t meant to be eaten.
By medieval times Northern Europeans of the upper class made them with solid fats like lard or butter so they’d stand stiff (sometimes even without a pan), and extra thick so they could handle the long baking hours - covered pies were called “coffins.” They were often used to preserve meat into the winter months. It’s thanks to the French and the Italians that we have the tender, flaky pie pastries of today (and modern technology that allows us to refrigerate our meat rather than bake them to pieces in rock-hard flour crusts).
Of course, the west wasn’t the only part of the globe where meat pies evolved, and it was quickly democratised into a food accessible for everyone to eat.
In the Indian subcontinent, smaller versions of meat and vegetable-stuffed pastries called samosas have been eaten for centuries. In Latin and South America small hand pies called empanadas became popular snacks after the age of colonisation. And for Australians and New Zealanders, meat pies are a staple to be found in supermarkets. There are even official food standards that require meat pies to contain at least 25% meat.
Today, the Brits might be the most well-known for their love of the savoury pastries. Classics like steak pie show up on many pub menus as the perfect complement to a freshly-poured pint.
A steak pie can be prepared in different ways, usually involving chunks of steak that are pan-fried then left to braise, with common additions like ale or kidneys. The braise is then poured into a lard or suet-based pastry and baked until golden and the insides tender.
Steak and kidney pies aren’t the only style of meat pie you can indulge in. Pastry is the classic base, but many versions of the meat pie interpret the dish a bit more loosely resulting in layered casseroles of all kinds. You can find unexpected yet delicious iterations in culinary cultures across the globe.
5 ways to cook a meat pie
Mini meat pies are perfect for picnics or to take with you as a snack on-the-go. A veal version is a different, lighter alternative to heavier beef or pork but still makes for a delicious meaty base. Make the veal ragout with shallots, tomato puree, and red wine, reduced until thick and rich in flavour. Encase within a pastry enriched with clarified butter and milk and bake until golden brown.
Invasions throughout history have led to many devastations. It has also indisputably led to fascinating blending of cuisines. For a meat pie that is a telling reflection of such fusions, look no further than the South African bobotie pie. The dish brings together European-style beef and milk-soaked-bread into a casserole, topped with almonds and native bananas. It is flavoured with apricot jam, chutneys, and spiced with the likes of cardamom and curry powder, an ode to the country’s Indian and Malay influences.
The cottage pie is another variation on the meat pie that leaves behind the pastry in favour of a casserole-style meat & carb dish. Cottage pie is no more complicated than a minced meat layer topped with rich mashed potatoes. These simple bases make the cottage pie a blank canvas for additions of your choice. Try sautéing cubed steak in addition to the mince and leaving the meat to simmer low and slow for extra indulgence. A touch of blue cheese to the mashed potatoes cuts through the richness wonderfully.
In Italy, a traditional Easter dish is pizza rustica - except it isn’t a traditional pizza at all, but a meat pie baked between two pizza crusts. Fillings run the whole gamut of Italian products and might include cheeses like ricotta, mozzarella, or provolone. You’ll often see cured meats like prosciutto, capicola, and salamis of different sorts. The cheeses and meats are usually mixed with eggs and the whole mixture gets filled into a deep pie tin that is lined and topped with pizza dough. It is advised to bake the pie the day before and refrigerate before eating so it can fully set and easily cut into slices.
If you’d rather stick to the traditional for Easter, go ahead and make an all-butter crust with flakes that will melt into whatever meat filling you choose. Be careful to use very cold butter and water and refrigerate the dough before using. That’ll ensure a very flakey bake - fill with a classic lamb stew, veal, or the Italian “basket” cheese (similar to mozzarella but more crumbly in texture). You can’t go wrong.