The British pie – 10 fun facts you didn’t know

Stargazy Pie
The Cornish delicacy, Stargazy Pie. Credit: Alamy/Simon Reddy

We’re a nation obsessed by flaky pastry and meaty fillings: pie, considered to be Britain’s national dish, is always on the mind. Here are 10 fun facts you probably didn’t know

1. Pie is an ancient dish invented by the Romans
They gave us roads and running water and the Romans are also credited with giving us pie – the first example of a meat filling enclosed in a basic pastry made of flour and oil can be traced back to ancient Rome.

2. Pie crust was originally used as tupperware 
The crusty top/lid of a pie actually served to preserve the food as a sort of container – in fact the shells were tough and basically inedible but they served well as a sort of utensil to eat the filling before being discarded.

3. The theatre of pie
Medieval chefs were often tasked with outdoing one another for their masters entertainment. Birds are said to have flown out of pies and it’s even rumoured that dwarves came out of pies at feasts.

4. Fruit pies and the Tudor connection 
Called ‘pyes’ in medieval England and filled with meat, fruit pies first appeared in the 1500s, but British tradition says that the first cherry pie was served to Queen Elizabeth I in the late 16th century.

5. Mince pies were once banned
Legend has it that in the 17th century Oliver Cromwell (Lord Protector of the Commonwealth) banned eating mince pies at Christmas as he saw it as a sign of gluttony. Luckily the ban didn’t last long and we are able to enjoy the delicious pies once more.

6. To eat humble pie
‘Umble pie’, a pie made from the innards of deer, was said to be a dish for the lower classes as venison was reserved for the wealthy. But while it might be fun to put ‘humble’ and ‘umble’ together, there’s no real evidence to link this saying with the dish. 

7. The Cornish delicacy that features fish that stare at you
Stargazy pie involves baking seven types of fish, including herring and mackerel, and a filling of eggs, potatoes and thickened milk. Whole pilchards are then arranged so their heads (and sometimes tails) emerge from a shortcrust pastry topping. The pie is traditionally cooked in the fishing village of Mousehole on 23 December to celebrate Tom Bawcock’s Eve, a day commemorating the heroic 16th-century fisherman who braved winter storms in his boat to ensure the locals didn’t go hungry over Christmas.

8. Jellied Eels is a popular pie accompaniment in East London
In London, pie shops often sell jellied eels –a classic Cockney dish of native British eels, boiled and then cooled – as an accompaniment to pie.

9. ‘Death by pie’ has been cemented in literary legend 
Shakespeare killed off two characters in Titus Andronicus by baking them into a pie, and Sweeney Todd, the fictional Victorian character who ran a London barber shop, disposed of his victims by baking them into pies.

10. Pies pop-up in many a nursery rhyme
Four and twenty blackbirds were baked in a pie in ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’, Simple Simon met a pieman in his eponymous rhyme and even Little Jack Horner stuck his thumb into a pie.