Baking the Pre-Colonial Pie

Nowadays we take for granted that pie baking is an activity that happens in the home. We forget that home ovens are a rather new development, historically speaking. They’ve only been popular for 150 years or so in America, far less than that in Europe. Traditionally, European ovens were large communal affairs, operated by a lord or landowner for the benefit of those who worked his estate.

Sadly, not a whole lot is known about the culture of baking in pre-modern Europe. That’s because most communal ovens were located in rural areas, and illiterate peasants aren’t so good at writing things down. Even a lot of the rural gentry didn’t know how to read and write back then, so with the exception of the odd legal case involving baking or bread, there are scant records about what went on.

What is known is that baking among Europe’s peasantry tended to occur in one of two ways, either a) you lived on an estate and your Lord’s family baked for you, or b) you prepared your own breads and pies at home and brought them to a communal oven to be baked. In either case, baking was an activity that occurred only rarely, usually once a week, which is why breads and pastries of old tended to be very large.

Why once a week? In part because fuel was expensive. But also because firing an oven was a labor and time-intensive activity. A large fire had to be lit inside the oven (typically a big dome-like clay or stone hearth) and tended for several hours while the oven walls heated and the fuel burned down to coals. Once the oven was good and hot, the coals were pushed aside and bread was put in, probably in several rounds. Once the big heat was over, other types of goods could be baked. Pies, which needed the least amount of heat, tended to be last, and often sat in the slowly cooling oven for the rest of the day…a fact which goes a long way toward explaining their texture.

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