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Humble Pie (Umble Pye) - a Medieval Recipe Using Cheap Meat Cuts
This is both a descriptive term which is accepted to mean to act submissively and particularly when publically admitting a personal error. It is also used to describe a popular medieval pie eaten primarily by the servants of the nobility and the poor although its ingredients can include a mixture of meat and sugary fruit which was prized in the Middle Ages. There were early references to a similar pie in cookbooks such as Liber Cure Cocorum where it was described as “a grand dish with exotic spices” and it grew to be an acquired taste among the more adventurous gourmets of the time.
Returning for a moment to the expression, various nations had different interpretations of the words and in many cases it meant to eat something unpleasant by means of a penance or punishment. From the mid-19th century, in the USA, anyone who had occasion to 'eat his words' by humiliatingly accepting and publically stating they were wrong, would be said to 'eat crow' (originally to 'eat boiled crow'). In the UK we 'eat humble pie'. The unpalatability of crow cooked in this way is not difficult to imagine, but what about humble pie?
The British are well known for their liking for offal, cooked in a variety of ways, particularly liver, kidneys and heart, but the ingredients of Humble Pie brings this to a whole new level.
During the 14th century, the numbles (or noumbles, nomblys, noubles) was the name generally given to the heart, liver, intestines, entrails etc. of animals, especially of deer, these cuts are now referred to as offal or lights and are rarely available for general sale, except through game butchers. Later in the 15th century these cuts had adopted the casual overall term of umbles, although all of the words continued to be used in various district locations for some time. There were a great many references to all words in Old and Middle English publications from 1330 onward. Umbles were used as the basic protein ingredient in pies for the lower classes, although the first record of 'umble pie' in print is as late as the 17th century. Samuel Pepys, the well-known writer and gourmet, makes many references to such pies in his diary; for example, on 5th July 1662 he wrote:
"I having some venison given me a day or two ago, and so I had a shoulder roasted, another baked, and the umbles baked in a pie, and all very well done."
and additionally on 8th July 1663:
"Mrs Turner came in and did bring us an Umble-pie hot out of her oven, extraordinarily good."
It is possible that it was the pies that caused the transition from numbles to umbles. 'A numble pie' could easily have become ‘an umble pie' and the act of transformation of similar words is referred to as metanalysis and commonly occurs in the English language.
The word humble, is normally applied to a person of ‘lowly position in society' or an expression of ‘self-deprecation’ and has a totally unconnected derivation from the word umbles. 'Umble' seems to be a Norman French word derived from the Latin 'lumb' meaning 'loins', whereas 'humble' comes from 'humilem', meaning 'lowly' The similarity of the sound of the words, and the fact that umble pie was often eaten by the poor or humble people in society could easily have been the reason for to 'eat humble pie' to have acquired its current colloquial meaning, rather than its lowly origins.
The majority of mammalian game needs to be prepared quickly after death. The process, often carried out in the field, or specially built meat hanging houses is known as gralloching (entrails removed). If this process is not carried out quickly the entrails will putrefy and must be discarded, preventing its use even for animal food. For the same reason unless the hunter is experienced the carcase must be quickly prepared by a qualified game dealer/butcher.
To recap, humbles are the entrails of a deer and at a time when venison was eaten only by the British aristocracy, the servants and poor peasants were given the entrails by the kitchens, rather than fed to the dogs at the time, or today, because of refrigeration, their modern use in soups or processed into animal food.
As mentioned humble pie has been in existence since before the 1300s and consequently the recipes vary according to district and the idiosyncrasies of the various households and cooks. Generally the recipes were not written down but each cook had their own version according to the likes or dislikes of the lord of the manor.
I have given two recipes, first dating from the 1600s and the second, a simplified one, from about 100 years later, in which the main variation is the animal used (recipes exist, in addition to beef, that use mutton, hogget, pork and wild boar, and a variety of other ingredients:
Ingredients for recipe 1 (This originates from around 1630)
Entrails of a deer including heart, liver, kidneys, tripe, sweetmeats, lungs and thoroughly washed intestines, etc. discarding bladder and anything containing faecal material.
1 lb Streaky bacon
The same weight in beef suet as the deer entrails (This will vary significantly according to the age, size and specie of the deer.)
2 tsp cinnamon powder or two small sticks.
2 tsp ground mace
2 tsp grated nutmeg
Large pinch of ground black pepper.
Large pinch salt.
4 pounds of currants or de-stoned raisins.
Half a pound of candied orange, lemon and citron peel (latter may not be available in the UK) or the same weight in sliced and chopped orange and lemon peel with two spoons of honey.
Two small Bramley (or other cooking apple) peeled, cored and thinly sliced.
Half a pound of sliced de-stoned dates
Juice of 2 lemons.
Sufficient short crust pastry to line a tin and form a lid.
Method of preparation (Using the quantities above this will make two or three pies)
Clean and parboil the Humbles of a Deer
Remove all of the Fat from them and weigh to determine the amount of beef suet needed.
Add the Beef Suet, bacon and mince it all together very finely.
Season it with Anchovies, Cloves, Mace, Nutmeg and a little Cinnamon, pepper and Salt
Thoroughly mix in the Currants or sultanas, apple, candied peel, lemon juice and de-stoned and sliced dates.
Prepare sufficient short-crust pastry to line a suitable size pie tin and enough to make a lid.
Fill the pastry lined Pie tin with meat/fruit mixture and add the lid making an air hole and using pastry offcuts to decorate.
Cook for approx. 2 hours at 175°C (or 350°F) or less depending on type of oven. These recipes were written for solid fuel fired ranges where the temperature could not be adjusted other by the position in the oven. Some experimentation is therefore needed.
After baked pour some Sack (sherry or fortified white wine) into the air hole before serving. (Before the days of pasteurisation alcohol was used to kill bacteria)
Serves about 8 depending on appetite.
Ingredients and method for recipe 2
This recipe dates from the early to mid-1700s and is primarily adapted from Elizabeth Smith’s 1739 cookbook, The Compleat Housewife, which was published in the American market for the chefs and kitchens of wealthier American colonists. You will note that it contains no venison or offal and strictly speaking should not be described as humble pie, but as a complex minced beef pie.
3 lbs (1.5 kg) minced chuck beef, 20-25% fat content
¾ lbs smoked streaky bacon.
5 green Bramley cooking apples, peeled, cored and sliced thinly
½ cup fresh spinach, rinsed
Head of romaine lettuce, shredded
6 cups plain breadcrumbs
1 ½ lb (250 g) de-stoned raisins or dried currants
½ cup apricot preserves (or chopped/diced apricots mixed with a spoonful of honey)
1 tbsp parsley
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp mace, ground
1 tsp nutmeg, grated
2 tsp cinnamon, ground
3 large free range egg yolks (reserve the whites for other use)
2 tbsp cream sherry
4 tsp orange blossom water
Preheat the oven to 425° F (220° C). Blend all of the ingredients together using your hands and fill into a short crust pastry lined pie tin, packing down well.
Ingredients and method for variation to above.
There is a variation to the above two recipes which replaces the alcohol content with a preparation known as a caudle (normally used as a warm drink for the sick, consisting of wine mixed with eggs, sugar, spices, etc.). The finished pie would then be normally known as a “Lombard pie or Lumber pie”. Originally, a lumber pie would be housed in a free-style decorated hand formed crust using very stiff pastry, baked without the assistance of a pie tin. However, for this variation we will simply line a large casserole dish with standard short pie crust pastry and fill the meat/fruit mixture into it. Roll out a lid and cut vent holes decorating with pastry off-cuts.
Bake for around 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350° F (175° C) and bake for another hour and a half. Again some trial and error may be required as early ovens were not adjustable other than by position.
While the pie bakes, prepare the caudle (recipe below). When you remove the pie from the oven, either pour the caudle through the vent holes and tilt it to spread it, or remove the top crust entirely and pour the caudle over the contents. Serve hot.
Caudle ingredients and method
Add all ingredients and whisk together in a saucepan:
1 cup (225 ml) cream sherry
1 cup (225 ml) white table wine
1 tbsp (15 ml) balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup (60 gm) sugar
Bring to a boil, and then remove from the heat. Pour into a glass bowl or measuring jug, beat until frothy:
Using 2 medium or large free range eggs whisk constantly, slowly add about half of the hot wine to the egg mixture, taking care not to scramble the eggs. When well-blended slowly pour the egg mixture back into the remaining hot wine, continuing to whisk constantly. Then add to the pie as above.
In these days of abundant food it may seem strange to go to such trouble to prepare and eat every scrap but organised farming and distribution did not exist and the poor had to survive on the little they could grow, raise or forage (or poach from the estate of the landed gentry!)
What do you know about Humble Pie ?
© 2015 Peter Geekie