Monday, July 08, 2013

Fitchet Pie

I came across a file of 'out-takes' from my book Pie: A Global History on an old hard-drive the other day, and there are a few little bits in there that are too good to be forgotten.

The first is perhaps my favourite comment on the pie. It is from no other than Alexis Soyer, the famous Victorian celebrity chef, in his book A Shilling Cookery for the People, published in 1860.

"No matter how ridiculous it may appear to Mrs.Smith, or Mrs. Brown, or Mrs. Any-body-else, do not omit to give room to the following remarks on pies. Never mind how simple these remarks may seem to you , the million will understand them well. For example, where is the little boy or girl in Great Britain who has not eaten pies sweet and savoury? From childhood we eat pies – from girlhood to boyhood we eat pies – from middle age to old age we eat pies – in fact, pies in England may be considered as one of our best companions du voyage through life. It is we who leave them behind, not they who leave us; for our children and grandchildren will be as fond of pies as we have been; therefore it is needful that we should learn how to make them, and make them well! Believe me, I am not jesting, but if all the spoilt pies made in London on one single Sunday were to be exhibited in a row beside a railway line, it would take above an hour by special train to pass in review these culinary victims; therefore see the importance of the subject. If we could only rescue to proper standing half a mile of pies and pie-crust, I think we should deserve a piece of plate, or at least a piece of one of our disciple’s pies."

Fine, and true words, I am sure you will agree.

The pie I want to focus on today is the Fitchet (Fidget, of Fitchcock) pie. It is associated with various locations, but particularly Shropshire and Cheshire.  Dictionaries of the late eighteenth centuries and nineteenth centuries refer to it as a pie made of apples, onions, and bacon, and usually indicate that it was made for labourers at harvest time.

The underlying rationale of course, is of making a small amount of meat go a longer, (but still tasty) way, and there are many similar ideas from all over the country - such as the Devonshire squab pie of apples, onions and mutton.  Occasional variants have potatoes added, or use cheese instead of the bacon, but these are not "traditional", whatever that means.

It would have been particularly important at harvest time to be able to feed a lot of workers in as economic and efficient a way as possible, while still providing sufficient calories for them to do heavy work - and keep them happy.  And, as Soyer indicated - what better form to fulfil these needs than a pie?

The name of the pie is a bit of a mystery. One myth has it that the name derives from the local name for a pole-cat, on account of the awful smell while it was cooking. How ridiculous is that? How could a pie of apples, onions, and bacon smell anything other than fabulous while it is cooking?

Other explanations are that it refers to a "fitched" or five-sided shape. I think it highly unlikely that pies which would have had to be made in large numbers for the consumption of farm-workers, would have been made in such a fancy shape. Finally, I have seen it suggested that "fitchet" was a local name for apples, which does sound more probable than the other two stories. I guess the jury will have to remain out on the decision at this time. If you have a theory, please let us know!

As to the recipe, it seems that one simply layers approximately equal amounts of apples, onions, and fat bacon in a pie shell, and bakes it. I give you, in addition, a real recipe for another English favourite - Egg and Bacon Pie. This one is from Houlston's Housekeeper's Assistant; Or, Complete Family Cook: Containing Directions for Marketing; Also, Instructins for Preparing Soups, Broths, Gravies, and Sauces; Likewise for Dressing Fish, Butcher's Meat, Poultry, Game, &c (London, 1828)

Egg and Bacon Pie.
Steep a few thin slices of bacon all night in water, to take out the salt, and lay the bacon in a dish; beat eight eggs with a pint of thick cream, put in a little pepper and salt, and pour it on the bacon ; lay over it a good cold paste, and bake it a day before you want it in a moderate oven, and send it to table cold.

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