Here’s an interesting passage from William Ellis’s 1750 book, “The Country Housewife’s Family Companion” (page 65). Ellis speaks of the virtuous timing of slaughtering a “porker” prior to harvest. The scrap pieces of meat could be used in making portable meat pies or pasties for the harvest workers.
“…our Housewife takes [the pieces of meat], and chops them into Bits, about the Bigness of a Pidgeon’s Egg; then peppers and salts them pretty high, for at this Time of Year this is more than ordinarily necessary to be done, because these Pyes or Pasties are to be kept for some Days for being eaten cold. This done, make a regular Mixture of the fat and lean Pieces, if there be not fat Pieces enough, the Pye will eat dry, and if there be too much Fat, it will be apt to make the Harvest-men sick. Now with these fleshy and bony Bits of Meat, several large Pyes may be made, and baked, either in raised Paste, in earthen Pans, or in pewter Dishes, or in the Shape of turnover two-corner’d Pasties, and thus they become a most necessary and convenient Food at this Time of Year, for Farmers Families in particular, because the cold Pyes and Pasties are a portable, wholesome, and satiating Victuals for Breakfast or Dinner.”
As I began my quest to understand the 18th century pasty, I figured the first thing I needed to do was to leave behind all of my modern notions of what they were. I needed to travel light, leaving plenty of room for the period recipes and definitions and between-the-lines clues that I would gather as I combed through my resources. I visited many of the old cookbooks, dictionaries, journals, and magazines, looking for signs leading to a uniform definition, so that I could recommend the historically accurate method of making pasties. Whenever I hit a dead end, I’d consult the secondary sources for hints that I may have overlooked.
After studying all the souvenirs I collected along the way, I decided to return home, leaving the path for others to explore. I did so not with some sense of defeat, but rather with the somewhat enigmatic conclusion that there simply is no definitive answer…no single historically accurate method of making an 18th century pasty.
The Oxford English Dictionary claims pasties were pies made without a dish. This same definition can be traced back to 18th century dictionaries. Yet, the most commonly published recipes in 18th century cookbooks utilized baking dishes.
The Oxford Companion to Food attempts to delineate between pies and pasties by claiming either a multiplicity or singularity of ingredients used in each dish. Yet you look across the terrain of period recipes and you’ll find the two terms, pie and pasty, are often used interchangeably (The Country Housewife Family Companion, for example, by William Ellis).
Hannah Glasse recommended the use of a baking dish. William Rabisha, in his 1682 cookbook, “The Whole Body of Cookery Dissected” suggested crimping together two pieces of pastry. Other authors recommended a tin patty pan.
Some pasties were baked. Others were fried (e.g., Charles Carter’s recipe, below, from his 1749 cookbook “The London and Country Cook“).
Pasty crusts were often highly decorated — one of many showpieces that might adorn a multi-course meal. Pasties were also made in a free-form crust to be taken into the field or on a journey to be eaten cold, out of hand. Ellis copies the following pasty recipe from Rabisha:
Rabisha’s Way to bake Brawn to be eaten cold.–Take (says he) your raw lean brawn, that is not useful to collar, and as much fat bacon, mince them small together, and beat them in a mortar; beat a good handful of sage with them; season them with some pepper, salt, and beaten ginger; pour in a little vinegar, and break in a couple of eggs; you may make a cold butter paste in a sheet form, and lay this your prepared meat on it; put in butter, and a few bay-leaves on the top, and so close up your pasty for baking.
(Brawn is any meat suitable for roasting, but often is the breast and/or leg of fowl.)
So which style of pasty is most historically accurate? They all are. It seems the common denominator between all pasties is simply two things: a crust and a meat filling….oops, then again, there were fruit pasties. Ok, it seems there is ONE common denominator: crust. And that takes us back to the O.E.D. which explains that the word “pasty” can be traced back through the Old French language to words from the ancient Latin dialect meaning, “something made of paste.”
I feel as though I’m walking in circles.
Why all the variations? It could be due to possible regional differences; possibly socio-economic differences as well. I mentioned in my last post that the beloved modern pasties that exist in similar form in insular regions throughout the United States, Latin America, Australia, and South Africa, are culinary descendants of the Cornish pasty of the Cornwall region of England. While the folded-over meat pastry may be the most common form of the pasty today, it appears it was only one of many forms in the 18th century.
Here’s our take on a recipe for a delicious meat pasty from an earlier version of Mollard’s cookbook:
About 1 pound of veal, coarsely chopped (Beef will also do)
2 ounces Fat Bacon (modern-day salt pork or jowl bacon), coarsely chopped
1 cup each, green beans, asparagus, mushrooms, onion, parsley (all fresh), coarsely chopped
Salt and Pepper
1 cup Bread Crumbs
1 Egg Yolk
1/2 cup Cream
Puff Pastry Dough (see our previous blog post and video on making a puff paste)
Lard, a sufficient amount for deep frying.
Combine the veal and the vegetables in a large bowl, and season with salt and pepper.
Preheat a large skillet or spider and fry the fat bacon for 2 or 3 minutes until much of the fat is rendered. Add the meat and vegetable mix and fry for about 5 minutes. Return the mix to the bowl, add the bread crumbs, and allow to cool for 10 to 15 minutes.
In a separate bowl, mix the egg yolk and cream together. Add this mixture to the meat and vegetable mix, and stir it until it is well incorporated.
Roll out your puff pastry dough until it’s about 1/8″ thick, keeping it as square as possible. Then cut it into about 6″ squares. Once the meat and vegetable mix has cooled, spoon a portion of it onto the middle of each pastry square.
Brush two of the edges of each pastry square with egg wash, fold the square over the meat mixture so that it forms a triangle, and crimp the edges closed.
In a cooking pot or kettle, preheat the lard to about 350-degrees (F). carefully add the pasties, 3 or 4 at a time, and fry for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. You’ll want to keep the lard around 350-degrees. Any lower, and the pasties will be greasy. Any higher, and the crust may become golden brown on the outside, but remain doughy on the inside. Drain on sheets of paper or on a cloth.
Here at Jas. Townsend & Son, we’re presently researching, of all things, the history of pancakes. We noticed a broad range of various pancake recipes as we perused the numerous period cookbooks in preparation for our video series, but we routinely skipped over them for more adventurous fare. But the ubiquitous pancake has finally caught the attention of our easily enticed eyes, and as a result, you can fully expect future blog entries as well as videos on this historically important food item.
But pancakes are not the point of this post.
Nestled in this grand terrain of flapjack, fritter, and crepe recipes rises a mountain of a treatise on pancakes by William Ellis, in his book The Country Housewife’s Family Companion. Lacking the pedigree of most of his competing culinary counterparts, Ellis, who was a maven of anecdote, drew upon his skills in observation and storytelling to present a grand collection of conventional wisdom. The frontispiece of this 1752 work on country life and cooking admits the rather unconventional qualifications for an author of a cookbook with the line, “The whole [of this book is] founded on nearly 30 years of experience by W. Ellis, Farmer…”
The few remaining references on Ellis’s life suggest that he was a popular 18th-century author, albeit only briefly, on English agriculture. His collection of best practices in agricultural affairs was popular among English country gentlemen, yeomen, and farmers, that is, until some of his readers visited his farm hoping to observe his prescribed methods as well as their successful outcomes. Instead, what they reported was a farm in complete disarray, and consequently much of Ellis’s writing was eventually dismissed as being largely fabricated.
Let that serve as a caveat to our modern interpretations, but even so, let us also avoid being too hasty to throw out the curds with the whey. The fact is, The Country Housewife’s Family Companion still gives us a rare glimpse into the daily customs, challenges, and conditions of English country folk.
This book merits further study by those interested in 18th-century cooking, husbandry, and country living in general.
You can find a digital version of The Country Housewife’s Family Companion here, with a superglossary offered here.
Printed versions are advertised here by Prospect Books.