When people mention pies and pasties, typical modern brands such as Greggs, Ginsters and Pukka Pies spring to mind. However, unless you live in Wigan and are being constantly informed that you are ‘home to the world’s greatest pie’, it’s not often we put much thought into where these foods originated, or how they came to be so popular in certain areas.
The original meat and potato pasty became increasingly popular in mostly northern, mining towns from the 18th century onwards, as a result of industrialisation and, primarily, copper or tin mining. The first of its’ kind, known as the Cornish pasty, contained no meat and dates back to approximately the 13th Century in Cornwall. It was given to poor working families who could only afford cheap food ingredients such as swede and potatoes.
The infamous Cornish pasty as we know it today only really took shape within the last two centuries. It became a widespread form of sustenance within industrialised towns, something of a staple diet in mining communities due to how convenient they were to carry and eat. Without the need for plates or cutlery, pasties provided workers with an ready supply of meat, vegetables and carbohydrates to suffice the long working hours down in the mines. The miners could hold the crimped edge of the pasty and simply throw that part away once the rest was eaten. This was vital as mining for copper and tin brought about a high influx of arsenic poisoning from unclean hands. Similarly, due to the pasty’s dense shape, it could stay warm for several hours down in the mines, making it a super-quick and easy convenience food for miners.
Farm-hands were also predominantly pasty-eaters, as their busy manual work schedules saw the need for convenience foods, similar to nowadays, whereby ‘Ginsters Pies’ are available in most petrol stations and motorway service stops for working lorry drivers on long shifts. The pasty was the original convenience food for workers in Britain.
Meat and potato pies became a large part of British culture, predominantly in northern working class towns and cities, such as Manchester, Salford, St Helens, Warrington, Bolton, and of course Wigan, during the late 18th to early 19th Century, as the industrialisation process began to rapidly expand. Their origins, surprisingly, began in largely middle class families. Typically one large pie would be made and the filling would be devoured by the household, after which the leftover crusts would be thrown to the servants. It only became popular in working class households around the same time as pasties did as a direct result of industrialisation. The term ‘pie’ derives from the ancient filling of magpies inside a pastry casing. By the 18th century however, pies became much smaller and contained beef, pork, rabbit or chicken and vegetables, usually with combined with a gravy-like substance and encased in pastry.
In the late 1800s, the great Irish potato famine had affected the general public’s diet and new recipes were sought after to provide workers with sustenance, without the British staple potatoes. It is believed that this is when the meat pie came to fruition. A combination of typically beef, pork or whichever meat was available, pepper and gelatine would form the filling of a meat pie and, as with the meat and potato pies, it would be encased in pastry. This got the workers in Britain through the potato famine and continued to be a popular pie in many towns, especially in the 18th century, during the world war one and two, and the extensive period of rationing which followed both. Steak pies or pork pies are now regularly enjoyed in British pubs, with a side of chips.
Nowadays, pasties, pies and other popular pastries are far more widespread, as a result of globalisation, marketing and the rapid shifts in 21st Century lifestyles whereby everybody is in a hurry to attend appointments, limited to hour-long dinner breaks, in the stands at football matches and other sporting events or, as mentioned previously, at motorway service stations looking for something quick to eat on-the-go. Large American chains such as McDonald’s and Subway now dominate the food-to-go market; however, especially in their towns of origin, people in Britain still can’t resist the odd meat pie or pasty every now and again. In Manchester especially, you’ll begin to notice that there’s rarely a main street to walk down without spotting a Greggs pasty shop. Only next time you go in for something quick to eat you’ll know exactly where it all began, down in the mines in Cornwall and Devon and the industrialised cities in Britain.