Friday, 4 September 2015

Veggie Pie, Flaky Pastry, and Colonial Era Vegetarianism

Vegetarian pie - it's what was for dinner in Colonial Australia.

One of the most interesting patterns that has emerged as I collate colonial era recipes is just how many of them don't involve meat.

While there was clearly a prevailing view that meat was pretty good stuff (see the headline "Vegetables Better than Nothing" from an article on working-class vegetarianism I looked at here), I have more entries in the 'vegetables' section of my 'main meals' spreadsheet than I do any other heading, including beef. And by God early Australian colonists loved their beef.

There are no doubt many reasons why people ate vegetable meals in the Colonial era, and not all of them involved personal choice. For a start many people simply couldn't afford meat, or even offal (as you can see in a news report from London here). The situation was better in Australia; but bread, dairy and vegetables were still cheaper than any type of meat - just as they are these days.

Vegetable meals also landed on the Colonial table because of the eating habits of the era. There was a fashion among the Victorian era middle class to eat multiple dishes at each meal, some of which were vegetarian and others meaty. A sample meal plan from Cre Fydd's Family Fare (which provides a year's worth of meal plans for a middle class family and their servants) can  been seen here:

The 'family fare' for January 1st, including the servant's rations ("Kitchen"). Note the number of dishes served at dinner.

Lastly, there were some people who chose to eat a purely vegetarian diet on the grounds of health or animal welfare, just as there are today. A summary of the views of the early vegetarian movement in England can be seen in this 1854 letter to the editor of the Freeman's Journal, entitled "Reasons for not eating flesh" (and quite frankly, having my dinner referred to as 'flesh' is a pretty good reason for me).

All of this is to say that I found it unremarkable to see today's first recipe - for a vegetable pie - presented without fanfare in a column of other recipes in an 1897 newspaper.

Vegetarianism, Colonial-style

Of historical interest is the inclusion of mushroom powder in the ingredients list. Mushroom powder is simply ground dehydrated mushrooms, and it was wildly popular as a food additive to give colour and a savoury flavour before the invention of stock powder. You can make mushroom powder from scratch (it is still popular among preppers), or you can put a little bag of dried porcinis through your coffee grinder or blender (which is what I did). Any leftover mushroom powder will sit quite happily in a sealed jar for about as long as the mushrooms would have in their unground state.

Now, on to the pastry. The pie recipe specifies only that you should "cover with pastry", and leaves the rest up to the reader. I took this as an opportunity to double down with my recipe testing and have a go at a recipe entitled "Flaky Pastry", which produces what we would call these days a rough puff. The recipes makes significantly more pastry than is required to make a lid for a single pie, so you can divide it as you see fit, or use the leftover pastry to make some croissants and scrolls. You probably only need one guess as to what I chose to do.

So what was the result when I combined these two recipes? Well, the filling was great, with a thick, mysteriously savoury gravy (thanks to the powdered mushrooms). And the pastry? Well, the pastry was a writhing mass of bubbling butter and flaky crust. If I'd been driving a team of oxen all day and was huddled around a small campfire in the cold bush night, I'm sure it would have hit the spot. But in my humble opinion, there are very, very few people in modern Australia who need that much butter at dinner. Next time I make this pie filling (and there will be a next time), I'll just whip up my usual shortcrust.

Here is the original recipe for the pie filling (the pastry recipe is below):

Vegetable Pie.-Stew together until tender 1 onion, 1 carrot, 1 turnip, a stick of celery, a small cupful of green   peas, a teaspoonful of sago or tapioca, loz. butter, and seasoning of pepper and salt, with just enough water to prevent burning. All the vegetables should be cut into small pieces; put all into a pie dish, cover with pastry, and bake till the crust is nicely cooked. A little mushroom powder is a great improve- ment.
VEGETARIAN RECIPES. (1897, October 30). Launceston Examiner (Tas. : 1842 - 1899), p. 3. Retrieved January 19, 2015, from

Good Old Fashioned Australian Vegetarian Pie


1 tablespoon butter
1 onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 turnip, diced
1 stick of celery, diced
½ a cup of green peas
2 teaspoons ground dried porcini mushrooms
1 teaspoon arrowroot (tapioca flour)
Pepper and salt, to season
Puff Pastry (see note)
1 egg, beaten

Cooking Time

1 hour, but the filling can be made in advance at any time of the day


4 serves


Melt the butter in a saucepan, and add the onions, carrot, turnip and celery.
Sautee over medium heat for a few minutes, without allowing the vegetables to brown, until the onion is translucent.
Add the peas and dried mushrooms, cover with water, and cook until the vegetables are tender.
Add the arrowroot (dissolved in a few spoons of water) to thicken the cooking liquid into a sauce.
Put the filling into a pie dish, and cover with pastry. Here is some ideas about fancy things you can do with your pie crust. At a bare minimum, pierce it with a fork a few times, and brush it with an egg wash.
Bake at 200C until the pastry is golden brown (about 20 minutes).

Note: Feel free to use a sheet of pre-made puff pastry. The incredible prevalence of advertisements for convenience foods in Colonial era newspapers has convinced me that most Victorian era housewives would have jumped at the chance to buy puff pastry ready made. If you're feeling particularly historically-authentic (or masochistic) try the recipe below which is a 'rough puff' (a puff pastry made in one go).

Here is the original recipe for 'Flaky Pastry':
FLAKY PASTRY.-Take 1lb. of flour, 1/4lb. of butter, and a sufficient quantity of cold spring water. Make a moderately soft flexible dough then roll in 1/2lb. of dry fresh butter. The flour should be perfectly dry, and the butter free from water or buttermilk. The dough should be made with a light hand, and in a cool apartment; and the paste should be baked in a moderately smart but not too hot an oven.
RECIPES. (1870, October 29). The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic. : 1864 - 1946), p. 7. Retrieved August 22, 2015, from

Flaky Pastry for Hardy Cooks


450g flour
110g butter
Enough water to bring the dough together
225g butter

Cooking Time

30 minutes (can be made ahead of time)


Lots. You will have more than enough for the pie crust above, and a tray of pastries:

Scrolls and croissants. Yum!

If the idea of a great volume of puff pastry doesn't float your boat (which I find highly unlikely seeing as you're reading this blog), you can divide the above recipe by 4 and make just enough for your pie crust.


Combine the flour and 110g butter and work until it has the consistency of breadcrumbs.
Add a few tablespoonfuls of water until the dough comes together. It should be soft and flexible. Stop stop kneading as soon as it reaches this point.
Roll the dough out as large as you can on your bench. Slice the remaining 225g butter thinly. Put a few pieces of the butter on half of your pastry, fold it over, and roll it back out. Continue thus until you’ve used up all the butter.
You can now use the pastry immediately, or keep it in the fridge for a day or the freezer for a month.
But really, you're going to use it straight away, aren't you?

What did you use your leftover pastry for, cookery friends?