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The history of the Yorkshire Christmas Pie

PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 December 2013 | UPDATED: 19:40 02 November 2015

The finished Yorkshire Christmas Pie

The finished Yorkshire Christmas Pie

Archant

The fascinating history behind the Yorkshire Christmas Pie is revealed by Annie Stirk, our food and drink consultant, who also offers a taste of a modern day version

Sue Nelson of Yorkshire Food Finder Sue Nelson of Yorkshire Food Finder

Done properly, nothing can beat a big bird on Christmas day, can it? Imagine turkey or goose and all the trimmings; plump flesh, crispy skin and herby stuffing (not to mention the goose fat roasties and verdant sprouts). But what about a multi-bird roast that offers a bird within a bird, within a bird; a gigantic galantine, a ballotine to beat all ballotines, a turkey-geddon? Before celebrity chefs began extolling the virtues of salmon or venison for Christmas roasts, big birds were always centre stage at the Christmas feast, starting with pheasant and swan, and maybe some turkey (once Columbus had ventured across the Atlantic), but then came the ‘Great Yorkshire Christmas Pie’.

This colossus of the kitchen came in a standing crust (a feat of engineering as any traditional pie maker will tell you) and was filled – like an edible Russian doll – with a series of progressively larger fowl, which could include pigeon, grouse, chicken, duck, goose or turkey, boned and wrapped around the smaller ones with stuffing between each layer.

Multiple-bird roasts which date back to the Romans and are said to have been a favourite of Henry VII, were very much a status symbol and used both as a signature dish by great chefs and to show off the game parks and grand dining rooms of wealthy households. It’s unclear how the Yorkshire connection came about but it’s likely that as a prodigious pie making county – famous in particular for its great goose pies in the 18th century – it was only a matter of time before the pie-to-beat-all-pies was attempted.

It was in the Georgian era that the Yorkshire Christmas Pie really seemed to come into its own, and in The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse, published in 1740, she gave a recipe for the pie using ‘whatever sort of wild fowl you can get’ alongside four pounds of butter and four bushels of flour for the pastry. Back in the 18th century of course, flour wasn’t as fine as it is now and you’d need to sift through a good few bags of it to get the good stuff. In 1807, French culinary artist Grimod de La Reynière took the great roast one step further by using 16 birds in a recipe that would make the RSPB shudder. His ‘rôti sans pareil’ – roast without equal – was said to include a bustard, plover, lapwing, thrush, lark, bunting and garden warbler.

Though 16-bird pies were out of the reach of most ordinary people, by the 1870s it’s thought that Yorkshire Christmas Pies were being made in the grand kitchens of Harewood House in Leeds. ‘The large, embossed copper moulds that were used still stand to this day in the kitchen,’ says Harewood’s Sibh Megson. Though far more conservative than La Reyniere’s pie, it would still take entire teams of cooks to prepare it. Harewood’s recipe contained a chicken within a goose filled with all manner of game meats alongside a zesty stuffing, all encased in pastry. By 1858, Yorkshire Christmas Pies had gained such a reputation one was even served up at Windsor Castle.

While the bird was the main event, the hand-raised pastry of the pie was always ornately decorated and in an 1843 edition of The Lady magazine, it describes how to make the crusty casing ‘beautifully illustrated and emblematic of the season’ measuring some ‘84 inches round and nine inches high’.

It seems the pastry casing had a practical use too. In her Art of Cookery, Glasse writes that ‘these pies are often sent to London in a box, as presents; therefore, the walls must be well built’ and the pie crust also helped to preserve the meat. Like Cornish pasties, it’s thought the crust was simply a carrying case rather than something to eat, with the lid cut off to serve the meat and then re-sealed so the interior could be eaten on another day.

Modern day Yorkshire Christmas Pies are still available, albeit on a smaller scale – and without the crust – and in the US it’s known as turducken, a portmanteau of turkey, duck, and chicken, or even tofucken for the vegetarians. In Yorkshire too, many butchers still offer three, four, five and sometimes six bird roasts at Christmas time.

Of course, you could also have a go at making one yourself too. Sue Nelson, founder of culinary trail company Yorkshire Food Finder, holds demonstrations. ‘People have always loved a challenge at Christmas and it’s just the same today,’ says Sue, who organises dozens of experiential food events across Yorkshire each year. ‘Christmas is the one time of year when you can push the boat out and do something really special for the dinner table.’

Sue first came across the Yorkshire Christmas Pie in 2005 when she went on a Rosemary Shrager cookery course at Swinton Park, North Yorkshire. ‘Rosemary cooked one with 12 birds – two partridge, two pheasant, a mallard, a goose and so on, which was completely mad!’ says Sue. ‘I prefer to stick to three or four birds. What you’re after is a blend of white, lighter meat and then a meat with a more gamey flavour, so pheasant is also a good choice.’

Sue, who chooses to buy her turkey and chicken from free-range farm Loose Birds, based at Harome, says a good free-range bird is best for a multi-bird roast. ‘They’re running around outdoors all day and fed a lovely rich diet so they get big, plump and luscious, and this is exactly what you need to be able to stuff it with all those other meats,’ she says.

The trickiest part of the whole exercise is in the roasting. ‘You have to make sure it’s not too dry and overcooked, but also that the meats are all cooked through,’ says Sue. ‘And with so many layers it pays to use a thermometer.’

While conventional ovens means a 10-plus bird roast is out of the question for most of us, anything up to six birds – as long as it’s stuffed and tied in neatly with butcher’s twine – will work. ‘Some people like to marinate the meat too but I think this can be too intense for more delicate meats. I prefer to simply rub a bit of butter under the skin of the outside bird, which filters down to the other layers and gives a lovely moist texture and flavour,’ adds Sue. Ultimately, why have turkey this Christmas when you could have turkey, goose, chicken and pheasant – and all the trimmings? n

Find out more about Sue Nelson’s cookery demonstrations at Yorkshire Food Finder, Wheldrake at yorkshirefoodfinder.org or call 01904 448439.

Where to buy your big birds

Six-bird

Online gourmet food hall farmison.com offers a majestic six-bird galantine, which features a turkey stuffed with an apple-fed cockerel, a duck, a guinea fowl, a partridge and a quail with cranberry sausage stuffing.

Five-bird

Steadman’s Butchers in Sedbergh has multi-bird roasts from five to eight different birds including chicken, mallard, pheasant, partridge, pigeon and goose, stitched together with a rosemary and cranberry stuffing.

steadmans-butchers.co.uk

Four-bird

The four-bird galantine at Kendall’s Farm Butchers in Pateley Bridge offers turkey, duck, grain-fed Yorkshire chicken and wild Nidderdale pheasant with a pork and chestnut stuffing, wrapped up in dry cured bacon.

kendallsfarmbutchers.co.uk

Three-bird

Lishman’s of Ikley is famous for its three-bird roast that includes duck, chicken and pheasant, while in Wakefield the Blacker Hall Farm Shop (blackerhallfarmshop.co.uk) roast also come with pork, orange and cranberry stuffing.

lishmansofilkley.co.uk

Find out more about Sue Nelson’s cookery demonstrations at Yorkshire Food Finder, Wheldrake at yorkshirefoodfinder.org or call 01904 448439.

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