As so often with traditional foods, although every cook knows there is only one true recipe – their own – as there are many cooks, there are in fact a myriad different versions of Cumberland Pie. Sadly, some made by commercial producers amount to little more than a Cottage Pie or Shepherd’s Pie (depending on whether beef or lamb is used) plus a topping of breadcrumbs and/or cheese. Nothing wrong with the products per se, but they are not what one thinks of as Cumberland Pie.
The origins of the pie as a celebratory medieval concoction dictate the basics of the thing, with the precise ingredients something that can be argued about over a pint of Jennings , tot of Whitehaven rum, or glass of Cumbrian damson gin. Big pastry pies that included expensive (and ostentatious) oriental spices and exotic candied peels were part of the great medieval banquets, with mace, sugar or honey, cloves, cardamom and pepper enlivening the minced meat that was the basis of the filling, and it seems that Cumberland Pies were a continuation of that tradition.
Spices have been a part of British cuisine for ages, not to mask rotten meat – a ridiculous idea when the price of fresh meat was a fraction of the price of the spices – but to enhance flavour – as Colin Spencer’s brilliant tome ‘British Food’ (published by Grub Street) explains with great wit and scholarship. The Crusaders brought back a liking for Middle Eastern spices, particularly with lamb, but also with pigeon, and for dishes where lamb and fruit was combined to delicious effect.
The true Cumberland Pie therefore should be spiced, sweetened somehow but not sugary, and with an element of fruit – dried fruit such as raisins, or candied fruits, or more acceptable these days apples - in the recipe as well as minced meat. In medieval times mixtures of meat were common, so it seems wrong to specify Herdwick lamb alone, or even more regionally specific Herdwick mutton.
So the essential elements for a Cumberland pie are minced meat, fruit, spices, a sweet element (at the very least sugar in the cooked apple), and a shortcrust pastry casing. Further enhancements can include rum, something found in much Cumbrian cooking since the days when Whitehaven was a major port for trade with the West Indies.
Even the construction of the pie is open to debate. Some prefer the meat, spices and fruit to be mixed as one filling; others like the spiced meat to be topped with a layer of apple, perhaps the most frequently encountered version in craft bakeries. And again some would have their pie with a lid, others with the apple or other fruits open at the top, like a deep tart.
Why Cumbria has retained this tradition – the root of our Christmas mince pies, though now we have these without meat – is unsure. The Lake District was largely cut off from the rest of the country until the 18th century, a wild and independent land. The spices could stand up to the flavoursome Herdwick mutton raised locally, particularly the hoggets killed at Christmas time when such pies featured on celebratory tables. But maybe it is just one of those traditions that people wanted to keep, though it nearly disappeared a decade or so ago. Now those walking from Keswick , Cockermouth and Kendal are grateful for some real rib sticking local fare, and Cumberland Pie is just that.