The History of Pastry – a noble art
Today pastry is thought of as a pretty commonplace staple, but it has a long and somewhat fascinating history that has seen it gracing tables around the globe.
Tracing the history of pastry back through the ages makes us ask the question, what is pastry? At its most basic pastry is simply flour, fat and water and if we look at this basic description of pastry we could argue that pastry has been under development since the Neolithic age as a cereal based dough was spread on a stone and baked in the sun to make a crude style of pastry pancake.
Whilst in the fifth century there were references to small pastries made in the plays of Artistophenes, though sadly there are no records to tell us what type of pastry this was or the recipe used; but what is clear is that in Ancient Greece the role of pastry cook was a clearly defined one, that was differentiated from other types of baker.
In the Ancient Mediterranean various types of thinly layered, flaky pastry was widely used. This type of pastry was similar to our modern day filo pastry and was used to create a series of dishes including one that bore resemblance to baklava being laden with honey and spices. When Crusaders returned to Medieval Europe they took with them recipes for flaky pastries and soon the recipes were adapted and adopted gaining widespread popularity
In Medieval England it was typical to make a form of pastry that was stiff and robust that was used to make a ‘coffin’ to hold stews, meats and other fillings. These pastry coffins were not designed to be eaten, instead merely as a vessel in which to keep, transport and hold fillings. This type of pastry would typically be made with flour and animal fat such as dripping or lard and is a predecessor to our hot crust pastry of today. Certainly this type of pastry and practice paved the way for the later development of elaborate raised pies with rich pastries cases for the eating.
Whilst the practice of robust pastry, not intended for the devouring, was a common dish in Medieval Britain, some pastry was made of fine wheat flour and enriched with butter, spices and sometimes eggs; this type of pastry was a noble affair that would be used to make delicate tarts. Whilst in France pastry was becoming more advanced with the Paris Pastry Guild being recognised in 1440 and a number of laws being passed to protect their rights and give them exclusivity in the production of certain pastry items as well as defining their duties; indeed pastry was a serious and noble art during this period.
In the households of wealthy Tudors rich tarts and pastry laden delicacies were popular fare throughout Europe and choux pastry is widely credited as having been created by Popelini, the chef of Catherine de’ Medici back in 1540, but this was only the beginning of the heights of advancement that pastry would reach. Antonin Careme in the 19th Century is no doubt the greatest innovator of the pastry world and is widely credited with elevating French pastry to Art.
The Victorian period saw pastry used to create not only intricate and elaborate raised game pies, but delicate European patisserie items such as choux pastry swans, short crust fruit tarts, éclairs, millefeuille and cream puffs all took stage on the tables and afternoon teas of the Victorians and pastry by this stage was a staple part of the British and European diet, however, it is the Americans that pioneered making pastry available in a flash, for Swanson and Morton pioneered the frozen pie market; who concentrated on savoury fillings, now pastry cased pies could be stored in the freezer and accessed by consumers at will. The earliest reference for frozen pie crust, as a stand-alone consumer product appears in the mid-1950s. Then in 1955, a process for making frozen pie crust ready-rolled was patented, by Billie Hamilton Armstrong back in 1954, this innovation took pastry in a whole new direction and made it quicker and easier than ever.
The development of pastry throughout the ages has truly been a global affair, it cannot be credited to just one country for its growth and advancements have happened organically and on many different soils.