Friday, June 29, 2012

Squab Pie, without the squab.

You would never get away with putting “squab pie” on the menu today, if it contained mutton instead of baby pigeon, although you would be correct from a culinary history point of view. Even though the Oxford English Dictionary defines “squab” as (a) “A newly-hatched, unfledged, or very young bird” and (b) specifically “a young pigeon”, it defines “squab pie” as being “chiefly composed of mutton, pork, apples, and onions, with a thick crust.”  Why is it so?

You might get away with your menu item if you qualified it as “Devonshire Squab Pie”, because you could claim it as a traditional recipe from that particular part of the world, which is famous for its apples (and cider). A genuine Devonshire Squab Pie is made from mutton and apples. There were apple types specifically grown for inclusion in squab pies, and there are many recipes in old cookbooks that would support your claim. But how did it all come about?

The mixture of meat and fruit in a pie goes back to mediaeval times, when there was no distinction between the ideas of sweet and savoury dishes: the original mincemeat pie really did have meat and suet in it, as well as fruit and sugar. This does not, however, explain the substitution of mutton for pigeon. Why were they simply not called mutton pies?

It is unlikely that the intention was to deceive the consumer (pie bakers would surely never do that?) – such a widespread deception would hardly have succeeded, and in any case, there does not seem to have been any attempt to keep the contents a secret.

Genuine pigeon pies were food for the rich, who could afford to keep dovecotes on their land. They were virtually the only source of fresh meat over the winter until the development of crops such as turnips, which allowed animals to be fed until spring. Pigeon pies became the symbol of the rich man’s table: they were obligatory at all grand banquets, such as on Lord Mayor’s day, and frequently appeared at the aristocrat’s breakfast. Mutton pies were the food of the common man, if he was lucky.

Perhaps “squab pies” were the peasants’ own inside joke, as they filled out their meagre pie filling with apple and onion, and sometimes potato? Some explanations say that the taste of mutton plus apples plus onions was similar to pigeon, which only seems likely to someone who has not eaten pigeon regularly. More likely, if it was a joke, it was directed at the peasants in the form of a snobbish slur, much like the ethnic slur of “welsh rabbit” (which became welsh rarebit) – the implication being that the Welsh were too stupid or too lazy to catch rabbits, so had to make do with toasted cheese instead.

The least likely explanation, but my personal preference, is from a small Devonshire cookbook in my possession, which says that it comes from “Squabble Pie,” or the compromise pie when the master is demanding meat pie and the mistress wanting apple!

Whatever the explanation, what seems certain is that eventually the combination became one of local pride; a local specialty was born, and Devonshire people would insist: “Mutton and apples, onions and dough, Make the best pie that ever I know”.

Of course, there are always regional and seasonal variations, and fluctuations in supply of ingredients to bedevil pie-bakers, but luckily these are the most creative folk (as I am sure readers will agree). Although the commonest ingredient for squab pies in old cookbooks is mutton, there were others. Cheshire had its “Cheshire Pork Pie”, which does not seem so strange: apples are a commonly accepted accompaniment to pork, because pigs have often been turned into the orchards to feel on fallen apples. In Shropshire, “Fitchett Pie” (so called because it was originally made in a “fitched” or five-sided tin) was made with bacon. If there was no meat at all, there was no problem: I have seen reference to both a fish version, and a wartime meatless recipe, which had lentils or haricot beans and was served with gravy made from Marmite™. The only constant ingredients in all versions are the apples and onions.

The pie even made it to Australia. In 1848, the young Annabella Boswell, of Lake Innes, near port Macquarie wrote in her diary of her cooking attempts:

“I picked some fresh apples for a squab pie … Afterward, finding that the cook was out, I carried my materials to the marble slab and determined  to make the pie  myself – but before I tell what this famous squab pie was composed of I shall give my opinion of its merits by saying that though it is possible I may make another, it is highly improbable that I shall taste it, Mr. Hugh was of a different opinion, or pretended to be, for he dined on it – and insisted on doing so, the pie is made of layers of apple and beef steak covered with pie crust, and baked, pepper and salt of course, but cook says I should have added an onion.”

The first Australian cookbook was not published until 1864, well after Annabella’s attempts, but it did contain a version of the traditional recipe:

Devonshire Squab Pie.

Lay mutton-chops, or mutton, at the bottom of the dish; on the meat strew some onions, with pepper, salt, a little sugar, and half a tea-cupful of water. Place on the top apples and potatoes, in layers, cut thin; cover the sides and top of the dish with crust, and bake well.
If you still insist on putting real pigeon squab in your pies, it is important to remember that the fatter they are, the better. We can learn from wiser folks in older times as to how to ensure this. Firstly, if you happen upon a pigeon nest with very new-born chicks in it, tie each of them down by one leg, so that they cannot escape. The parents will continue to return to feed their slow young ones until they are fat enough for you.  Alternatively, if you prefer to get your live squabs from a live squab supplier, you can give them a final fattening up by following the advice in this magazine article from 1886.
“The extraordinary demand in England for squabs has led to their importation in very large numbers from Germany and France. These are taken by professional feeders and fattened in a peculiar manner. I remember once witnessing the process in operation in London. The feeder was an elderly man with flabby, sallow cheeks and protruding eyes, long matted hair … In a tub of water was a quantity of millet and split peas. The feeder crammed his mouth with them until his cheeks swelled out to hideous proportions. Catching up a young bird and inserting its open beak between his lips, the feeder injected its crop full ... The astonished bird at once assumed a complacent look. With the greatest rapidity bird after bird was picked up and the food thus blown into each. The feeders get about two cents for each dozen birds thus fed, and when it is remembered that they can fill a bird with a rapidity which excels the mechanical bottling of soda-water, it is easily seen that the professors are enabled to earn a tolerably good living at their novel calling. The birds are fed by this process twice a day, and in several days become fat and very tender.”

Sounds like a catchy marketing phrase – “Fattened on the premises”, doesn’t it?

Quotation for the Day.

When you die, if you get a choice between going to regular heaven or pie heaven, choose pie
heaven. It might be a trick, but if it's not, mmmmmmmm, boy.
Jack Handy.

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