Few foods are as stereotypically “medieval” as the pasty (PASS-tee), a small meat pie in the shape of a semi-circle. Because of their compact size, pasties were perfect meals for busy medieval urbanites and were an ideal street food for travelers. They could be eaten hot or cold and could be wrapped to-go and eaten like a sandwich.
Pasties are referenced in popular literature going back as far as the 12th century. Chaucer’s characters in the Canterbury Tales eat pasties, as do other literary figures from Robin Hood to Sir John Falstaff (Shakespeare). The 14th century poet John Gower wrote his famous Confessio Amantis, which contained a poem called Tale of the Beggars and the Pasties in Book IV. “Cornish” pasties, as they are commonly known, have held their place in traditional British cuisine and are even referenced in modern literature like Redwall, Poldark and Harry Potter.
This recipe from Le Menagier de Paris (The Goodman of Paris) has been on my list for some time now. I’ll admit, I was intimidated by the pasty because I’d never eaten, let alone personally constructed such a thing. I figured I would have to be British or a meat pie expert to be able to pull this off, but I couldn’t have been more wrong! This is perhaps one of the easiest medieval recipes I’ve tried, made even easier by the fact that it is very forgiving and measurements really aren’t very important here. A useful thing, considering most medieval recipes don’t contain any measurements.
The Goodman of Paris provides a great insight into home life in medieval France, particularly for the middle class. It was written in 1392-1394 by a wealthy and highly educated merchant who was at least in his 60’s. He wrote the book in order to make married life better for himself and all men everywhere, of course, but to also give his very young wife (a teen) a guide for everything from household management, hiring servants, gardening and cooking to moral and religious duties. It appears he genuinely wanted to help her out and was very sensitive to her age and inexperience. Apparently he had also started a section on games and hawking (a sport involving falcons) but died before he could finish it. Luckily he did complete his cooking section, which contains around 75 pages of recipes.
“Chickens be set in a pasty on their backs with the breast upward and large slices of bacon on the breast, and then covered. Item in the Lombard manner, when the chickens be plucked and prepared, take beaten eggs (to wit yolks and whites) with verjuice and spice powder and dip your chickens therein; then set them in the pasty with strips of bacon as above.”
I made this recipe two ways, the first following the redaction by Maggie Black in her book, The Medieval Cookbook (Revised edition, 2012). The second was my own version, using a personalized powder fort spice blend. I tried both shortcrust and puff pastry dough for comparison.
- Shortcrust or puff pastry (12 oz for 6 pasties)
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 2 tbsp. verjuice or lemon juice
- 1/8 tsp. ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
- 1 lb. chicken or turkey, in small thin slices
- 3 large rashers (strips) bacon, trimmed of fat and cut in half
My adaptation (recommended)
- Shortcrust or puff pastry
- 2 eggs, beaten, 3rd egg for glazing
- 2 tbsp. verjuice
- 3/4 tsp. powder fort or
- 1/8 t. black pepper
- 1/8 t. cloves
- 1/4 t. cinnamon
- 1/4 t. ginger
- Boneless, skinless chicken strips
- Large (thick) rashers of bacon, cut in half.
Step ONE: The Pastry
Before we do anything we need some pastry dough. The safest bet authenticity-wise is a basic shortcrust, but puff pastry will also work. If you go with shortcrust I suggest my tried-and-true recipe that I used to make crispels:
1 3/4 c. flour
½ c. butter
2 tbsp cold water
Pinch of salt
Cut butter into cubes and rub it into flour until the dough is crumbly. Add the salt, egg and cold water to bind into a dough. Add more water if necessary. Optional: steep a couple strands of saffron in the cold water prior to adding to the dough. This was common practice in royal kitchens.
Another great pasty dough recipe can be found here.
Keep in mind that Cornish tradition states that the pastry should be “robust” and not be too flakey or rich. The original point of the pastry was to provide a shell to cook the meat in, as well as make it easier to carry it around in a bag without destroying everything inside. The shell might not have been eaten at all! However, modern pasty shells are meant to be eaten, which can be a more pleasant experience if you use puff pastry.
Roll out your dough to a reasonable thickness (around 1/4″) and cut into circles. I used a side/appetizer plate as my guide, which is probably around 6 inches in diameter.
Step TWO: The Seasoning
“Item in the Lombard manner, when the chickens be plucked and prepared, take beaten eggs (to wit yolks and whites) with verjuice and spice powder…”
Beat a couple eggs and add your verjuice or lemon juice. I always use verjuice, but this may be a difficult ingredient for you to find. Verjuice is made from unripened grapes or crab apples and was often used in place of vinegar. The two condiments were used interchangeably in medieval recipes.
Next, add your spices. In this recipe, “spice powder” could really mean anything. Medieval kitchens often used spice blends that were personalized according to taste and budget. For a savory chicken dish, Powder Fort (strong powder) would have most likely been used, or some combination of spices often found in a powder fort. Strong powders typically favored ginger and black pepper and were combined with lesser parts of cinnamon, mace, grains of paradise, cardamom or cloves. I definitely preferred my powder fort blend over the simple ginger/pepper combination suggested by Maggie Black.
Step THREE: the Meat
“Chickens be set in a pasty on their backs with the breast upward and large slices of bacon on the breast, and then covered. Item in the Lombard manner…dip your chickens therein; then set them in the pasty with strips of bacon as above.”
Dip your chicken into the egg mixture and place on one side of your pastry circle. You can use chicken breasts, strips or even diced chunks here. Some modern sources suggest pre-cooking the meat but I didn’t find it necessary. However, I do suggest using smaller pieces of chicken to ensure they’re cooked through, among other things. “Stir-fry” chicken worked really well for me and required minimal preparation.
Fill up half of the pastry circle but be sure to leave enough room on the edges to seal the pastry closed. Lay a strip of bacon over the top of your chicken. I suggest using thicker rashers of bacon, since you get much more flavor that way and it strikes a better balance with the chicken.
Step FOUR: Fold and Bake
Brush egg mixture over the bare side of the pasty circle and the edges that will be sealed. Fold it over and press the sides together with your fingers or crimp with a fork. If you left enough room at the edge you shouldn’t have any trouble keeping them sealed.
Poke a few holes in the top and, if desired, beat a third egg and brush it over the top of the shell.
Bake on a baking sheet at 425 degrees for 15 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 275 and bake another 20-25 minutes.
I was worried about my meat not being done but every time I made these they were cooked through. If you chose to use chicken breasts over smaller strips you may have to cook these a bit longer than what I’ve written here.
This pasty recipe could certainly be adapted to be a full size two-crust pie using whole chickens. In fact, the text suggests they could have easily been made that way. Using a whole chicken obviously would not have worked for hand pies, though a small chicken breast or even a game hen could work for eating on the road.
I genuinely enjoyed Lombard chicken pasties and I will definitely be adding this recipe to my list of favorites.
Both types of pastry shell were delicious but there are pros and cons:
The shortcrust version was rustic and somehow tasted much more authentic than the puff pastry. Shortcrust shells tasted good, but they were firm, crumbly and a little difficult to eat. It really does seem like they were meant to be broken and discarded in order to get to the tender meat inside.
The puff pastry pasties were flakey, rich and generally easier to eat if you plan on eating the shell. The only major downside is that I wasn’t very confident about whether or not the meat was cooked through, since the shortcrust seemed to do a much better job at containing the heat. In the end they turned out to be just fine.
- Bender, Tovah. “Creatively Interpreting The Menagier de Paris.” The Recipes Project. 2014.
- Black, Maggie. The Medieval Cookbook. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2012. Print.
- Fitzpatrick, Maria. “A Taste for Tradition: The History of the Cornish Pasty.” Sept 2, 2013.
- Miller, Luke and Marc Westergren. History of the Pasty. Michigan Technological University. Accessed July 12, 2017.
- Portland Community College. Medieval Sourcebook: Selections from The Goodman of Paris, 1392/4. Text from Tania Bayard’s translation entitled The Medieval Home Companion: Housekeeping in the Fourteenth Century (Harper Perennial, 1991). Accessed July 12, 2017.