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.
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.
Modern Chicken Pie
2 large chicken breasts
300g sausage meat
500g plain flour
Teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
A good grating of nutmeg
A good pinch of salt
- Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- When the pastry is the required size and shape, pop it into the fridge to firm up for about 20 minutes.
- Chop the chicken into small lumps and place in a large bowl.
- Add the salt, mace, nutmeg and cayenne to the chicken and make sure each piece is coated.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.