What is Pigeon Pie?

In the course of writing blogs, regular readers will be aware that I from time to time post a blog on regency era food and drink. I am not sure why regency era food and drink are so fascinating to me, but I think, apart from the fact that I am a keen ‘foodie’ anyway, it’s because I like the idea that I can replicate authentic foods from the period using old recipes, unlike some of the other aspects of Regency life which we can only read about. 

And of course, getting a feel for the Regency era must include looking into what people naturally spend so much of their time doing—eating and drinking. After all, for Regency era enthusiasts, half the fun of immersing yourself in an historical time is experiencing it for yourself!

So, I was looking around the internet for ideas on what to try cooking next, and seeing as in the southern hemisphere we are well into summer, I thought, picnic food!!

Any true blue Janeite has probably watched the movie ‘Emma’ (any version) where they have a picnic on Box Hill (it’s where Emma makes her terrible faux pas and insults poor Miss Bates by implying that she talks too much). Austen liked picnics herself, apparently, and readily spoke of enjoying her food. For example, she is known to have noted to her sister, “You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge cake is to me.” References to food abound in her novels and meals are obviously important social occasions.

Eating out-of-doors was quite common in history, not just for the Regency period. Apart from small, quiet picnics among friends, many were quite formal picnics with servants to carry hampers filled with delicious items cook has rustled up for them and eaten in a scenic spot. Mrs Beeton’s cookbook from that era mentions the items she felt necessary for a decent outdoor meal, including ‘a joint of cold roast beef, 2 ribs of lamb, 2 shoulders of lamb, 4 roast fowls, 2 roast ducks, 1 ham, 1 tongue, 2 veal-and-ham pies, 2 pigeon pies’.  Plus she mentions endless other items like lobsters, calf’s head, various fruits and veges, dozens of pastries, puddings and blancmanges, plus countless other items ranging from loaves to cakes. A feast indeed!

Of all the items mentioned by Mrs Beeton, the pigeon pie caught my eye, especially as in Emma, having been promised a picnic, Mr Elton grows ‘impatient to name the day and settle with Mr Weston as to pigeon-pies and cold lamb.’

Pigeon pie was sometimes called a squab pie, squab being a young pigeon. These days apparently mutton is often used to substitute for the pigeons, and apples are a traditional ingredient also.

Squab has a sweetness to it and a slight berry flavour, as well as a metallic taste (so I am told by my butcher), so perhaps the apples and mutton were intended to mimic these flavours. An authentic recipe for what looks like a pigeon pot-pie, written apparently from a cookbook in 1904, a little after the regency era, but presumably passed down for a few decades, was the following:

For an excellent pigeon-pie for a small family singe and draw three birds, split them down the back, wipe with a clean cloth, but do not wash. Fry half a dozen slices of salt pork and brown the pigeons in the pork-fat. Then put them in a deep baking-dish, slice a small onion, brown in the hot fat and add a pint of stock and a tablespoonful of flour. Stir until slightly thick, then strain over the pigeons. Cover them tightly and cook for two hours in a moderate oven. Remove the cover and replace it with one of pie-crust. Bake until brown.

However, when I tried to buy pigeon or squab in Queensland, Australia—well, let’s just say it was not easy to source, and at $50 per bird and the same for freighting from Melbourne, I decided to use a substitute recipe, which I found on the internet.

So here is the recipe, from Bon Appetit and it looks really amazing! I will definitely be cooking this myself very soon. The substitute meats are pork and chicken thighs. I hope you have lots of fun cooking it, and then imagining yourself sitting on Box Hill with Emma eating it…Bon Appetit!

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