Let me see; what am I to buy for our sheepshearing feast? Three pound of sugar, five pound of currants, rice – what will this sister of mine do with rice? But my father hath made her mistress of the feast, and she lays it on […] I must have saffron to color the warden pies; mace; dates? – none, that’s out of my note; nutmegs, seven; a race or two of ginger, but that I may beg; four pound of prunes, and as many raisins o’ th’ sun. (The Winter’s Tale 4.3.36-48)
Food comes up frequently in many of Shakespeare’s works, but when readingThe Winter’s Tale for my Shakespeare seminar, this passage stood out to me. In this part of the play, we are introduced to the pastoral setting of Bohemia, where shepherds are preparing for the sheep shearing feast. The clown, who is speaking these lines, talks to himself as he walks down the road, listing off what seems like a grocery list of items he needs to get to prepare for the feast. Even though he mentions specific ingredients, like sugar, ginger, and raisins, he only mentions one actual dish: warden pies.
Warden Pie has a rich history in the countryside of England. Warden Pies get their name from the pears that were traditionally grown and used at Warden Abbey in Bedfordshire (Tastes of Bedforshire). The Abbey was founded in 1135, and was known for its peaceful activities, like cultivating these small pears used for cooking (The Landmark Trust). Shakespeare, who was Catholic, was probably aware of this abbey, which is only about an hour away from London. Because of the serene and rustic atmosphere of this abbey, it makes sense that the peaceful country land of Bohemia would also use pears from the countryside of Bedforshire.
In addition to using the Warden pear, this time-honored pie also uses other traditional ingredients like ginger and saffron. Because the clown specifically mentions the importance of the saffron to color the pies, this spice remains integral in the baking and overall look of the pie; however, while the pears are local, saffron is far from it. Historically, this vibrantly colored spice was cultivated in places in Italy since the 13th century, making the prices of this spice extremely expensive for people of England, for example. (Basker and Negbi 231). They would have to pay a lot for a very small amount (same as today). This can also be said for many of the other spices the clown mentions. With the spice trade active in England during the 1600s, Shakespeare and his fans would have been familiar with the efforts of getting foreign spices like sugar and saffron.
Because of this, we can see how important this sheep shearing feast was for the people of Bohemia in the play. Shepherds are not known for their wealth, so being willing to spend however much money is needed for sugar, currants, saffron, ginger, and other foreign spices implies not only the value of this feast, but also the hospitality of the clown’s family. We as readers can better understand the customs at the time by looking at such seemingly insignificant references like warden pie and saffron in this play.
For making the Warden Pie myself, I wanted to find a recipe that included many of the items the clown lists in his little monologue. While it is not the traditional Warden pie that was baked in Shakespearean England, I baked a rustic pear tart with saffron pastry using the recipe from Better Homes and Gardens. I liked that this recipe is meant to look rustic, because it fits the pastoral feel of Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale. The recipe includes pears (not Warden Pears, unfortunately), ginger, sugar, dried cherries (to substitute the prunes and raisins), and cinnamon (to substitute the mace, nutmeg, and cloves).
This was the first time I had made a tart, or even used saffron in a pastry dough, so I was excited! To think about it, I had never really made dough from scratch by myself either; most of the time I was just helping my mom. The saffron dough took a little more time and arm muscle than I expected, but using the saffron to color it was really interesting to see, since it made the dough a vivid yellow color.
In addition, the recipe called for four medium pears, but I could only fit slices from about two and a half pears, and the tart was stuffed! I’m not sure if the pears I bought were bigger than what the recipe called for, or if I did not roll out the dough to make the tart bigger, but nevertheless, it did not change the flavor or look of it.
Overall, I was pretty happy with the outcome! The pears and cherries paired well together, and the saffron not only gave the crust a nice color, but also a delicate flavor that tasted delicious. A slice of pie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream and you’re good to go! And I think I now have a better appreciation of the history of warden pie and why it is included in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.
5 tablespoons boiling water
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
4 ice cubes
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cold butter, cut into small pieces
1 egg yolk
4 medium Anjou or Bartlett pears, peeled, cored, and sliced (about 4 cups)
3/4 cup dried cherries
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom or cinnamon
1/4 cup pear nectar or apple juice
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger
1 pint ginger, cinnamon, or vanilla ice cream (optional)
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. For dough, in a small bowl pour the boiling water over saffron threads; let stand for 15 minutes. Add the ice cubes to chill the mixture; set aside. In a large bowl stir together the 2 cups flour, the 1/4 cup sugar, and the 3/4 teaspoon salt. Using a pastry blender, cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. In a small bowl combine egg yolk and 3 tablespoons of the saffron-water mixture. Stir egg yolk mixture into flour mixture. Stir in enough of the remaining saffron-water mixture, 1 tablespoon at a time, to just moisten the flour mixture. Gather mixture into a ball, kneading gently until it holds together; flatten into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap. Chill for 30 minutes to 3 days. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough to a 13-inch circle. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet; cover with plastic wrap and set aside.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. For filling, in a large bowl gently toss together pears, dried cherries, and lemon juice. Add the 2 tablespoons sugar, the 1 tablespoon flour, the cardamom, and the dash salt; gently toss to combine.
- For pear syrup, in a small saucepan combine pear nectar, the 3 tablespoons sugar, and the crystallized ginger. Bring just to boiling over medium heat; reduce heat. Simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Add to fruit mixture; gently toss to coat.
- Spoon fruit mixture onto dough circle, leaving a 2-inch border of dough around the edge. Fold dough edge up and over fruit mixture, pleating as needed and leaving center uncovered. Spoon any liquid remaining in the bowl over fruit mixture. Brush dough edge with milk; sprinkle with additional sugar. Cover the fruit in center of tart with foil.
- Bake in the preheated oven for 45 to 60 minutes or until dough is golden and filling is bubbly. Cool on baking sheet on a wire rack. If desired, serve with ice cream.
Basker, D, and M Negbi. “Uses of Saffron.” Economic Botany, 37.2 (1983): 228-236.
Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. Ed. David Bevington. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Sixth ed. New York: Pearson, 2009. 1527-1569. Print.
Tastes of Bedforshire. “Warden Pie.”http://www.tastesofbedfordshire.co.uk/Uploads/Recipes/Warden%20Pie.pdf
The Landmark Trust. “Warden Abbey.” http://www.landmarktrust.org.uk/our-landmarks/properties/warden-abbey-12823#tabs=1