Once pastry-making became a firmly established practice in British kitchens, many regional variations began to take shape. For savoury options, the Melton Mowbray pork pie and the Cornish pasty are the most well-known, both now owning protected food status due to their culinary heritage. Like the early game pies, the pork pie features a raised hot water crust pastry containing a pork filling and a set jelly, or aspic. These are thought to have developed particularly around the Melton area during the 1700s due to the growth of cheesemaking and foxhunting. An unlikely pairing, but increased cheese production meant an excess of whey, which made fantastic pig food, and boosted the local production of pork. Handily packaged in pastry for labourers, these were noticed by visiting huntsmen and thus word of these little pies travelled further afield.
In a similar portable-pastry vein and at roughly the same time, the Cornish pasty also gained notoriety as a worker’s packed lunch, this time for Cornish coal-miners. Although versions of a pasty-type dish date back to the 1300s, the durability of the pastry case, cheap meat and vegetables used for filling proved perfect for the poorer, working-class families labouring in the mines. The Bedfordshire Clanger took this one step further, with a suet-pastry case enclosing both main and dessert in one package, a savoury filling at one end and sweet at the other. You are unlikely to find a kiosk selling Bedfordshire Clangers in your local train station, though – these failed to catch on with the same level of success, and have since faded into obscurity.
The rise of the sweet tart provided more fodder for interpretation, with custard fillings often forming the base. The word custard itself derives from both the Anglo-Saxon word ‘crustarde’ (a tart or pie with a crust) and the French word ‘crouste’ (crust). One of the most famous versions is the Manchester tart, where the custard covers a layer of raspberry jam and is then topped with desiccated coconut. Also from the north-west is the Liverpool tart (with a sweetened lemon filling) and the Eccles cake (a mix of spiced dried fruits encased in puff pastry). The Derbyshire town of Bakewell gave its name to the almond-filled Bakewell tart, although the earliest recipes, such as from the iconic Mrs Beeton’s 1869 book on Household Management refer to a richer Bakewell pudding, made with puff pastry rather than the shortcrust we know today.
From portable case to show-stopping centrepiece in just a few hundred years, pastry has come on quite a journey from its humble beginnings. Once considered a mere utensil, these days it is used more as a delicious culinary canvas for increasingly creative toppings and fillings. The choices today are almost mind-boggling, with pies and pasties, quiches and tarts available with almost any filling or flavour; from classic recipes to new fusion creations… it’s hard to believe the Romans used to throw their pastry away.