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16th Century Cherry and Port Pie

“Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of Rye.

Four and Twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened,

The birds began to sing.

Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the King?”

Well, this pie (thankfully) doesn't contain any blackbirds - just tasty cherries and port!

This recipe comes from Thomas Dawson's "The Good Huswifes Jewell" (1585) and can be found on The Gode Cookery's website. However, due to the fact that many recipes at the time didn't specify how to make the "shell" in question, I took the pastry from "A Propre new booke of Cokery" (1575 - author unknown).

The original recipes:

For the filling:

To make a close Tarte of Cherries. Take out the stones and laye them as whole as you can in a Charger and put in synamon and ginger to them and laye them in a tart whole and close them and let them stand three quarters of an hour in the oven, then take a sirrope of Muscadine and damaske water and sugar and serve it.

For the pastry:

take a little faire water and halfe a disshe of butter and a little safron and set all this vpon a chafyngdisshe till it be hote then temper your floure with this said licour and the white of two egges.

Time estimate:

Filling: 50 minutes.

Pastry: 10 minutes prep, 1 hour baking (plus extra time for decorating).

The updated recipe:

For the filling:

1kg of cherries (fresh or frozen)

60ml of port (ensure vegan)

75g of sugar

1 lemon

1tsp rosewater (optional)

Breadcrumbs (optional, for thickening).

For the pastry:

75g of vegan butter

150ml of water

300g of plain flour

A pinch of saffron (optional - for adding colour)

4tbsp of aquafaba


  • The amount of sugar and lemon you need may vary depending on the type of cherries (and port) you use. Sour cherries will require extra sweetener, whereas sweet cherries may require more lemon juice. I used frozen dark, sweet cherries for this recipe.

  • This made just enough dough to cover the bottom of a 9-inch pie dish (about 2 inches deep) and for it to have a full lid.

  • I omitted the rosewater from this, as I discovered that I did not much care for it. You can add it in if you wish.

  • Many modern recipes require the butter to be very cold when you begin the pastry, but as we will be melting the butter it doesn't matter.

  • This recipe is a bit more like a hot water crust than the shortcrusts we use for a lot of pies today. This means that the texture we get at the end is not as flaky and crisp as a shortcrust usually is.

  • The filling can be made in advance. Follow step 1 and then leave to cool before putting it in the fridge (I would leave it for no more than two days).

1) Make your filling by combining all of the ingredients (except the breadcrumbs) into a pan and placing over a low-medium heat. I started off with the juice of half a lemon. I suggest starting there and adding more later if desired. Leave to simmer for around 45 minutes, or until desired thickness. Taste and adjust sweetness/sourness. If you want to thicken the mixture some more, you can add some of the breadcrumbs at the very end.

2) Start the dough by adding the butter, water, and saffron to a pan over a low heat. Allow the butter to melt, but do not let the water come to a boil.

3) Meanwhile, add your flour to a large mixing bowl and make a well in the middle.

4) Once the butter has melted, pour the mixture into the well of the flour and combine until just mixed. Add the aquafaba 2tbsp at a time and knead the dough. It should be a little greasy.

5) Roll out your dough into two even disks. The recipe doesn't specify, but I rolled it out to just about cover my pie dish (about 4mm thick). If you are going with a different type of top to your pie, roll out one disk for the bottom and then do what you wish for the decorations with the rest.

6) This is where I deviated from the recipe, but you can choose to skip this bit. I decided to refrigerate my dough for around an hour before baking to allow the fats to solidify. I'm not entirely sure that it was necessary, but I will likely make this dough again and perhaps update here if I skip this bit!

7) Pre-heat your oven to 190°C fan (gas mark 6).

8) Grease your pie dish and lay down the first layer of pastry. Trim off any excess. You can see where I had to patchwork some bits that broke (but it's at the bottom, so it didn't matter too much!).

9) Throw in your filling and then top with the other disk of pastry/any other decorations. If you're using a lid then I would suggest slicing into it to allow the steam to escape. I also topped mine with just a little bit of oat milk to act as an egg wash, but this is optional.

10). Put it in the oven (preferably the middle shelf) and bake for about an hour. If you can see the filling, you want it to be bubbling.

Serve your pie hot and enjoy!

I loved this filling. It was perfectly sweet and tart, and the port taste came through just enough without being too alcoholic. I used the Marks and Spencer's Ruby Port for this. The crust wasn't bad. It held up really well, but lacked the flakiness I have come to expect from modern pies. I would be interested to try it again to see how a more savoury filling would fair.

During the 16th Century (and before and after!), the rich were fond of using food to display the culinary skills of their chefs and display their wealth. Whilst filling a pie full of birds and then baking it sounds extreme, it did seem to be a viable form of entertainment for the wealthy. During the Middle Ages, the term “entremet” was used to refer to a form of entertainment during dinners, often including over the top, inedible foods along with performances. In the Italian cookbook “Giovanni de Roselli's Epulario” (translated to “Epulario, or the Italian Banquet”), we can see a recipe “To make Pies that the Birds may be alive in them, and flie out when it is cut up”. Here, it describes a method of creating a “coffin” (a pastry shell) with a bottom “as big as your fist, or bigger if you will”. The recipe then calls the chef to fill this with a smaller (likely edible) pie and surround that smaller pie with live birds. This way, when the guests cut open the outer pie, “all the Birds will flie out, which is to delight and pleasure shew to the company”. The smaller pie was likely so that the guests would not be put-out by the lack of food: “And because they shall not bee altogether mocked, you shall cut open the small Pie, and in this sort you may make many others, the like you may do with a Tart”.

Birds were not the only animals to be used as entertainment at the table. I mean other than stuffing living creatures into pastry, what else is there to do when you’re rich? In the 17th Century, we can see suggestions of how to organise festive dinners. Robert May’s “The Accomplisht Cook” (1685) suggests creating a ship out of pasteboard “with flags and streamers, the guns belonging to it of kickses” and a castle “with battlements, porticullises, gates and drawbridges made of pasteboard. Place it at a distance from the ship to fire {at} each other, the stag being places betwixt them”. These were not designed to be two separate entremets, rather they were part of a whole display.

“But where are the animals?” I hear you ask. Well, Robert May suggests making an extra two pies and filling one with birds and the other with…frogs… “lifting first the lid off one pie, out skip some frogs, which make the ladies to skip and shriek. Next after the other pie, when come out the birds who, by natural instinct of flying in the light, will put out the candles, so that the flying birds and skipping frogs will cause much delight and pleasure to the whole company”. I don’t think I want to go to any party that involves frogs jumping out at me from my food.

Whilst the 16th Century saw its fair share of inedible, decorative pies, it also saw the popularisation of custard and fruit pies. It is thought that this increase in popularity was due to sugar becoming less expensive - partially thanks to the introduction of tea, coffee, and chocolate in Europe increasing sugar consumption. One particularly exotic fruit pie from the Elizabethan times was the “Orengeado” (candied orange peel) pie. This expensive delicacy was apparently gifted to Elizabeth I for New Years in 1600 and remained popular until around the 1800s. Elizabeth I must have had a great love of pies, as it is also believed that the first Cherry Pie was created as a gift to her.

These fruit pies would have been created by Royal Pastry chefs, but if you have a go at this pie (or any other fruit pies!) then leave a comment below!

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