“Promises and pie crust are made to be broken”
-Jonathan Swift, quoted in The Times
A chicken and ham pie is fairly standard British fare, beloved of pub and bistro frequenters up and down the country. But the origins of this dish go back a long way and involve some wonderfully fanciful theories.
It all started with the cockertrice….
It all starts in the abbey of a small village in Hampshire some thousand years ago. Somehow a toad mated with a chicken (the mind boggles) and gave birth to a creature, cute in youth, but monstrous in adulthood. A brave and clever abbey servant polished up a saucepan lid (our modern silicone ones wouldn’t be any good for this) and held it up to the tiresome animal (it had a tendency to eat children). It thought it saw a fierce rival and attacked its own reflection until it was finally exhausted and easily dispatched by the triumphant, and well-rewarded servant.
And chefs needing to innovate….
Chefs in those days, working for the rich and royal, weren’t any different from those of today. They needed to be innovative and push frontiers. Their big idea was to bind two, three, four or even more animals together, either by serving them stuffed inside each other (the ‘four-bird’ approach of today), or by cutting two different animals in half, swapping the halves and sewing them up.
The chicken-toad combo somehow didn’t appeal, but the chicken-suckling pig did, so by the time of Henry VI, the ‘cokyntriche’ had become, as described by John Stafford, the bishop of Bath and Wells, a half a chicken sewn onto half a pig. It became a favourite of Henry VIII, and, indeed they had a lot of fun reconstructing (literally) this dish at a recent project undertaken in the Hampton Court kitchens. You can read all about it here.
Thankfully a few normal mortals then ran a reality check over this dish (the mix of the salty pork with the mild-mannered chicken really did work well) and decided that it was a lot easier to cook the two animals separately, and then reassemble them in a pie, which eventually developed into the very palatable pub version that we know today.
During the process of researching this post I looked into the ‘four-bird’ current supermarket offering. The original ‘Pandora’s Cushion’ for example, was a boned goose, stuffed with a boned chicken, which was stuffed with a boned pheasant, which in turn was stuffed with a boned quail.
Iceland, on the other hand, are currently offering:
“Iceland Four Bird Roast with an Orange Marmalade Flavour Glaze
Basted skin-on chicken breast joint with added water with turkey breast with added water, duck and goose layered with a pork, sage and onion stuffing, topped with streaky bacon with a marmalade flavour glaze sachet.”
Chicken and turkey with added water? Marmalade flavour? No, thanks…. But a marmalade glaze on the pastry casing of my cockentrice pie? Genius as it turned out.
Recipe for a rather special chicken and ham pie
- 240ml/1 cup dry cider
- 180 ml/⅔ cup chicken stock (or make it up with water and three stock cubes/tsps as part of the recipe)
- 3 chicken breasts – approx. 200g/7 oz each
- About a quarter of a brick of butter – some 60g/2 oz
- 1 red onion, peeled and sliced
- 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed with 1 tsp smoked salt
- 3 generous tbsps. plain flour
- 240ml/1 cup milk
- Double cream
- 150g/6 oz cured ham
- 550g shortcrust pastry
- 180ml/⅔ cup double cream
- 1 beaten egg
- 2 tbsp warmed marmalade
- Preheat the oven to 210°C
- Put the cider and stock (or water and stock cubes) into a medium sized saucepan, bring to a simmer, and poach the chicken breasts in it, covered, for about ten minutes. Take off the heat. Using a slotted spoon take the breasts out, put on a plate and leave to one side.
- Put about half the butter in a large saucepan, add the onion and fry gently until it’s nearly transparent. Add the garlic and fry for a minute more. Add the rest of the butter, get it melted, sift in the flour and stir well. Cook for just a minute or two. Don’t let the mixture burn.
- Slowly add the milk, stirring with each addition of milk to mix in well and avoid lumps. Then do the same with about some 300ml/1¼ cups of the remaining stock. The sauce should be smooth and thickened. Taste and season – lots of lovely freshly ground Indonesian long pepper and a bit more salt.
- Stir in the cream.
- Take off the heat.
- Dig out a shallow pie dish (go here to find out why the glass ones are best) and grease it.
- Divide the pastry into half – one half being a bit bigger than the other. Roll out both on a floured surface into circles. Line the pie dish with the larger circle and pinch the pastry to the edge. Brush with the beaten egg.
- Cut the chicken and the ham into small pieces (the eater shouldn’t have to cut them with a knife) and add to the sauce. Pour the filling into the prepared pie dish.
- Cover the pie with the second, smaller circle of pastry. Pinch the edges together. Cut a couple of slashes in the pie lid to allow the steam to escape
- If there is any pastry left over, sculpture it into leaves etc to decorate the pie.
- Glaze the pie first with the beaten egg, and then with the warmed marmalade.
- Bake for about thirty minutes – the pastry should have turned golden.