Modern Chicken Pie: 1864

When planning today’s experiment I suddenly realised I hadn’t done a savoury Victorian recipe in quite a while. In my defense, Victorian food (barring cakes and puddings) doesn’t have the greatest reputation so it was hard to get excited about it. As Talia Schaffer points out, certain Victorian cooks like A. B. Marshall advised boiling food until it no longer resembled its original form and tasted of nothing. This was to avoid scandal befalling the diners; in a society obsessed with morality, strong flavours were believed to ignite sexual arousal – something that was largely condemned in polite Victorian society.

Or was it? Though the Victorian era tends to conjure up images of stuffy and repressed men and women glancing furtively at one another across candlelit parlours (as though making eye contact over a plate of macaroons was a particularly deviant crime), that’s not quite the full story. Of course certain groups fell into this category, but there’s also a lot of evidence to suggest that Victorian sexuality wasn’t all repressed and buttoned up; there are many accounts of couples enjoying all elements of their relationship and of same-sex relationships which were ‘allowed’ to flourish in relative privacy (up until 1885, at least, after which any homosexual act – private or public – became illegal.)

The trouble was that many Victorians had never been very good at speaking publically and openly about sex, and so any sexually liberated voices were trampled on by the overpowering moralism of the abstinence crowd. As the century wore on these various groups became louder and more opposed to what they saw as the degeneration of society; social moralists who believed sex caused “enfeeblement” in men even went so far as to promote the wearing of male anti-masturbation devices to ensure that men were not regularly depleting themselves of energy and brainpower by… well, you know.

Though the final few years of the 19th century saw a radical clash of ideas around sexuality, it was the prim and proper (and largely upper class) image of Victorian Britain that won out in popular culture and in the culture of the kitchen. Victorian food became immortalised in images of milk jelly or gristly lumps of unseasoned meat and as it did, so too did society’s belief that Victorian Britain was full of sexually frustrated aristocrats with no outlet other than long-winded poetry and endless walks in the countryside.

This post has not begun the way I thought it would…

Yeah, me neither.

Back to pies?

The ‘Victorians-hated-flavour-because-they-hated-sex’ myth can also be busted by looking at a range of recipes. Sure, a quick flip through the pages of the quintessential Victorian Mrs Beeton’s Household Management shows us that pretty bland recipes for the likes of tapioca and kale broth existed, but as well as being recommended for invalids (who were supposed to eat plain things to aid recovery) these recipes are interspersed with more exciting ones for things like chocolate cream and cake so laden with booze it was literally called “Tipsy cake”.

Powerhouse of the Victorian culinary scene though she was, Mrs Beeton wasn’t the only celebrity chef and today’s experiment is from another well-known 19th century cook: Eliza Acton.

Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families was originally published in 1845 but became so successful that it had been reprinted 13 times by 1853. Even modern day cooks praise Acton for her writing and recipes; Delia Smith commented that Acton was “the best writer of recipes in the English language” and food writer Bee Wilson referred to her as “my heroine” in 2011.

It seemed as though I was looking in the right place if I wanted to challenge the idea of Victorian food as being dull and bland. I flipped through the pages searching for something that would be a tasty thing to eat for dinner without tipping me into the abyss of moral corruption. Then I found it: chicken pie. Not just any chicken pie either: modern chicken pie. Acton didn’t explain what made this pie modern but it may have been the ingredients used; modern chicken pie contained a heady mixture of spiced chicken and sausage meat whereas an alternative recipe for “common chicken pie” didn’t have any sausage meat at all – not even a little bit – which must have appealed to the anti-sex members of Victorian society.

Don’t you dare do a ‘sausage meat’ joke. Your mother reads this blog.

Although Acton’s modern chicken pie recipe looked pretty tasty on its own, I still wanted more ‘wow’ factor to really put an end to the bland food myth. Over the next couple of pages I found instructions to make a raised pie – a type of pie that was generally taller and more ornate than standard pies and wasn’t baked in a tin or dish. Raised pies were the showstopper challenge on the Great British Bake Off 2017 pastry week episode, so it seemed a fitting choice. Acton also recommended that any of her pie recipes could be used for raised pies but cautioned that for an inexperienced pie baker (such as me) it was best to start by making a small one first, as the technique of hand moulding the case might take practice.

Following Acton’s method, I began on the pie crust. After making a dough of flour, melted butter and hot water I began to shape my pastry case by rolling it into a large mound and then pushing down to hollow out the centre so that it resembled a clay pot on a pottery wheel. One technique that’s sometimes used today is to shape the dough around a cake tin or pie dolly to ensure smooth edges and lines, allowing it to firm up and then removing it from the tin or dolly before baking. Acton also mentioned that it was difficult to achieve good results by “using the fingers only” and that usually only French cooks excelled at a totally free-hand form of pie making, which to me suggested that inexperienced cooks sometimes relied on props. Anyway, I counted myself as an inexperienced cook and shaped my dough round a small spring-form cake tin and popped it into the fridge to firm up for 20 minutes while I worked on the filling.

I could say I spent time making my own sausage meat but that would be a lie. I don’t feel too bad though as Acton’s recipe for sausage meat was lean pork, fat, sage, salt and pepper and these were the only ingredients listed in the sausage meat I bought. I also don’t have a meat grinder so any sausage meat I made was liable to be quite coarse, which Acton expressly mentioned as being a problem and something cooks should take great care to avoid.

Once I’d carefully unwrapped the parcel of sausage meat, I chopped two chicken breasts up into small chunks and seasoned them with cayenne pepper, salt, pounded mace and nutmeg. Things were definitely not looking bland! In fact, I was pretty impressed with how well the pie was holding its shape and how colourful the cayenne stained chicken was. It was then time to fill the pie with alternating layers of sausage meat and chicken before topping it and brushing with egg wash.

After one and a half hours it was done. It smelled delicious and, amazingly, it had held its shape and looked pretty impressive – if I do say so myself.

I desperately wanted to cut into it to see if I’d be greeted with neat layers or (as I half expected) pools of grey water and amorphous meaty mush, but I waited until it had cooled a little to give everything time to settle.

After five minutes I cut into the pastry which gave a heartening crack as it split open to reveal… distinct layers of sausage meat and chicken, still moist and steaming, yes! It was definitely time to taste it.

Stick an 18+ certificate on that and you’ve got some Victorian smut right there.

The next time someone comments that Victorian food was all overcooked meat and milky mush I’m going to send them a copy of this recipe. I’m going to print out and frame this recipe – one copy for each room in my house. Hell, I’m going to tattoo this recipe onto me so I never forget it. This. Was. Excellent.

Okay, so the pastry was a little thicker than perhaps Acton had intended, but it didn’t matter because it was surprisingly rich considering it was just three ingredients. However, it was the filling that really stood out. Chicken and pork work really well together anyway, but encasing them in pastry and allowed them to steam in their own juices for a couple of hours was a revelation. Each bite was tender and not at all dry, as pies without gravy can sometimes be. The sausage meat was subtle and slightly peppery, but the chicken was the stand out star. Faintly spicy with a slightly sharp aromatic after taste from the mace, this was not your usual meat pie. It was, in all honesty, one of the best pies I’ve ever eaten. In an instant I understood why some people could consider food a gateway to degeneracy because there was nothing dignified about the way I shovelled it into my mouth.

It was also incredibly filling – I cut two ordinary slices for both me and my husband but because the pie had a bit more height than normal we could only manage about 3/4 of a slice each. Luckily, Acton recommended that the pie could be enjoyed hot or cold so though it’s unorthodox, we’ll be having more of it for breakfast tomorrow.

Unfortunately for Acton her fame, reputation and glorious pies were eclipsed by Mrs Beeton when Household Management was published in 1861. Fans of Acton might take a little morbid comfort in the knowledge that Eliza had been dead for two years by this point, though, so didn’t live to see her fame dwindle in comparison to Beeton’s rising star. Slightly meaner fans who enjoy seeing Mrs B’s recipes lambasted (or who just enjoy it when I cook something that ends up inedible) might want to click here for an example of stereotypical bland Victorian fare.

Comparative fame or not, it’s clear that Acton’s chicken pie wins hands down out of the Victorian recipes I’ve tried so far. Myth-busting and delicious, this is one dish I’ll definitely make again and would really encourage anyone who likes pie to give it a go – raised or not.

E x

Modern Chicken Pie

2 large chicken breasts
300g sausage meat
500g plain flour
250g butter
Teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
A good grating of nutmeg
A good pinch of salt

  1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C.
  2. Melt the butter in hot water and gradually add it to the flour until it forms a dough. Set aside about 150g worth for the lid.
  3. Knead the rest of the dough into a lump and then, as if pushing down on clay on a pottery wheel, hollow out the centre to form a rough shaped case. Don’t push all the way through the dough as you want to ensure the filling doesn’t leak out of the sides or bottom.
  4. Continue shaping the pastry case by pushing the dough down and kneading up the sides until it is about 5 inches in diameter and 4 or 5 inches tall. You may want to use a bowl or small cake tin to help give it a neat form.
  5. When the pastry is the required size and shape, pop it into the fridge to firm up for about 20 minutes.
  6. Chop the chicken into small lumps and place in a large bowl.
  7. Add the salt, mace, nutmeg and cayenne to the chicken and make sure each piece is coated.
  8. Remove the pastry case from the fridge and push a layer of sausage meat into the base. Sprinkle with water and then add a layer of chicken. Repeat each step until the case is filled (I managed two layers of chicken and three of sausage meat.)
  9. Roll out the dough set aside at the start to a small disk and place on top of the pie. Make sure the edges are sealed by crimping them or pinching them to the edge.
  10. Make a slit in the top of the pie to allow steam out of the pie when cooking and brush the pastry all over with egg yolk wash. You can add some pastry decorations at this point if you want to.
  11. Bake. After an hour, check that the pie crust isn’t turning too brown and if it is, cover it with foil. Turn the oven to 180 degrees C and continue baking for another hour after which time the pie should be cooked.

Boiled Chicken After The French Fashion: 1594

We had a dinner party last week.

I mean, sure, instead of a perfectly clean and tidy house my husband was still madly hoovering up the lounge when people arrived. And yes, it’s true that we saved on toastmaster fees by getting our toddler to do it instead by running round in only a nappy, gleefully screaming at guests and trying to push them over. As for ballgowns and bowties? Unfortunately as all mine were at the dry cleaners or something I had to make do with a 2 day old top of dubious odour and jeans that were so snug I spent half the evening with the button undone – before eating. But damnit, I’m still calling it a dinner party.

Luckily our friends aren’t nobs, and fully expected this to be the case. They mucked in with the cleaning and manfully refrained from shoving the toddler back and not one of them turned up wearing a ballgown. It was all very harmonious and then I said, “tonight’s meal is going on the blog.”

Lots of silence. I think one of them went, “oh?” in a sort of quiet fear.

“No, no, it’s all okay!” I panicked, “I picked one that wasn’t too out there, in terms of ingredients, and I can’t see why it wouldn’t taste nice.”

“So what is it?”

“Boiled chicken -“

“Oh for fu-“

After the French Fashion”, I interrupted triumphantly. “It has to be good if it’s French, right?”

“It’s okay, we can get a takeaway later,” someone muttered to their partner.

Boiled Chicken after the French Fashion was a Tudor dish from Thomas Dawson’s The good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin which I’d found in Terry Breverton’s book The Tudor Cookbook. I really wasn’t kidding when I said I’d tried to pick something that would appeal to modern day tastes but was still dinner party worthy and despite it’s anaemic sounding name, it fit the criteria perfectly. In fact it was delicious.

Okay, was it truly representative of a Tudor feast? No. But I had limited time and resources to work with so although I’d had every intention of making the 1516 dish Live Blackbird, Rabbit, Frog, Dog or Dwarf Pie, where live animals, and I guess people (!), were sealed into a pre-baked pie crust before jumping out to the delight of the king and his courtiers, I found getting hold of enough dogs to fill it adequately was difficult. Also, the meal I had prepared was just one dish, but by royal Tudor standards that was basically peasant fare. For example, over the course of just 3 days Lacey Baldwin Smith tells us that Elizabeth I’s court ate: 67 sheep, 34 pigs, 4 stags, 16 bucks, 1,200 chickens, 363 capons, 33 geese, 6 turkeys, over 1000 pigeons, almost 3000 eggs, 430 lbs of butter and a cartload of oysters. In earlier years, Henry VIII, (well known for his restraint when it came to meals) was said to have frequently spent £1520 a year on food for the royal household. In today’s money that’s approximately £860,000. In comparison, as my husband pointed out, I was offering guests unseasoned chicken with a 60p bag of curly kale and a couple of boxes of Matchmakers for dessert. Do you think Henry VIII would have found that a behead-able offence?

Still, I was determined that this would be a success. Dawson’s recipe asks cooks to quarter an unknown quantity of whole chickens and add them to a pan of white wine at a rate of 1 pint of wine per 2 chickens. Maths wasn’t my strongest subject at school and my determination wavered as I had flashbacks of trying to work out the fairest payment plan if Paul, Danny and Sue bought a pack of sweets for £3.47 but split them according to a 20:33:47 ratio. (In my mind it always ended with Sue absolutely losing it, grabbing the bag and sprinting off, culminating in a ratio more representative of playground life at 0:0:100.)

Because there were 6 of us, we were hungry and I was hoping to have leftovers, I settled on 12 chicken breasts cut into thirds. Post-Roman and early medieval chickens in England were smaller than their modern day counterparts and though I expect they had grown by the time of the Tudors, I can’t find any evidence to show whether they were of a comparable size to chickens today. I estimated that 12 breasts was roughly equivalent to 3 or 4 Tudor chickens so added 2 pints of white wine to the pot. Somewhere in the back of my mind, my maths teacher cheered me on.

I added thyme, parsley and half a thumb’s worth of ginger, chopped up into as tiny pieces as I could manage, and then sliced 5 dates. This was one of the more unusual ingredients, but actually the technique of mixing exotic sweet fruits with savoury dishes was typical for the Tudor time period, especially for the rich where it was yet another opportunity to show off their wealth. It’s something that we perhaps don’t do as much now, or if we do it’s only done with specific meals, (pork and apple sauce, for example), but during the reigns of Henry VIII and his murderous offspring, it was common for cooks to use a mixture of ingredients that we might now consider almost experimental.

The dates weren’t easy to chop and ended up being more of a paste, but I added them anyway. I had one left over, which I gave to my toddler who excitedly shouted, “chocolate! chocolate!” as she ate it, so there’s a mum win for me.

The final ingredient was 6 hardboiled egg yolks. I had no idea what they were for, or whether they should be sliced, crumbled or added whole. I assumed they were to act as a thickener for the wine to turn it into more of a sauce, but couldn’t see how 6 yolks would do that on their own. Still, I dutifully chopped and added them to the pot.

Definitely the most vibrant and healthy looking meal so far. Luckily, this would all change

I left it to simmer for about 1 and a half hours on a low heat. After a while I checked to see if the yolks had done their thing and was unsurprised to find they hadn’t. In fact, before they’d been added, this meal looked quite appetising. After their addition, however, it had turned a sort of creamy grey colour, still the thickness of water only now with lumps of rubbery yolk bobbing on the surface like deformed bath ducks. In order to salvage the appearance of the meal, and not to be blacklisted from any dinner parties ever again, I mixed in a tablespoon of flour to make up for the lacklustre thickening efforts of the egg yolks. Other than this addition, everything else was as the recipe intended.

Once the liquid resembled a silky looking white sauce and less like Satan’s bathwater, I added some salt and cinnamon and “served it forth” along with some distinctly un-Tudor mustard mash and greens. It’s a myth that the Tudors added spices to rotting meat to disguise the disgusting taste; spices like cinnamon, which became popular during the reign of Elizabeth I, were so expensive that their presence in recipes indicates that the chef could definitely have afforded good quality meat. It would have been more than it was worth to a royal chef to use up rotting meat for the king or queen, and so as with the dates the cinnamon would have been an exciting way to show off relatively unusual ingredients and wealth.

It. Was. Amazing.

Before anyone was allowed to tuck in, I had to get the perfect picture. Cue 10 minutes of my guests hiding unsightly wine glasses, adjusting the positions of the knives and forks and just generally getting out of the way. All for me to end up picking a super close up shot

The chicken was tender and had just started flaking and the alcohol had cooked away to leave a rich fruity flavour behind. It was sweeter than any other savoury sauce I’d had before thanks to the dates, but the salt and herbs stopped it from tipping too far. Despite what I thought was quite a lot of ginger at the time, it wasn’t spicy at all. I thought I could detect the hint of cinnamon in a warming way, but whether or not that was because I knew it was in there was unclear; some people could taste it and others, (inferior guests, in my opinion), couldn’t. The addition of flour helped the overall attractiveness of it, but I can see that even without it it would still taste good, just maybe more broth like.

My fear had been that people would try it and go quiet, suddenly remembering that they’d actually eaten recently already, or that they were trying to lose weight for January. But in reality, every plate was cleared! In fact, there was only a small portion left by the end, enough for lunch later in the week.

This dinner party might not have been quite as sophisticated as Mary Berry’s, or as showy as the Tudor’s but in the end it was very us – and not a frog, dog or dwarf was harmed in the making of it.

E x