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IN THE WINDOW of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds teashop in Tiverton there are lots of china birds, most of them black and shiny. Though clearly there as decoration these are not just ornaments, each one has another purpose. They are pie birds, also known as pie funnels and pie props.

Apart from those still sitting in old-fashioned kitchens, I'd thought all the pie birds in Britain had long ago migrated to antique shops. So I was pleased to discover a nest of sparkling white ones in a new kitchenware shop in Sherborne recently. Can it be that down in Dorset the proper deep homemade pie still flourishes?

In the days when a hot meat pie was not a factory-made snack served straight from the microwave but a fine full-flavoured dish large enough to feed a family and more, the problem of how to support the pastry in the middle was solved by the same English potteries that manufactured the oval china pie dishes.

A small cylindrical funnel was thrown on a potter's wheel, and when the clay was leather-hard, holes were cut in the side or at the base through which the hot liquid of the pie filling could run freely. The steam escaped through the funnel's open top and thus prevented the hot gravy from bubbling out under the pastry lid during baking. Moreover, extra gravy could be added to the pie through the top of pie funnel. In 1897, instructions given by Edward Spencer, in Cakes and Ale, for an amazing pigeon pie so enriched with foie gras and truffles that he names it Angel's Pie, specify that a Madeira-based gravy should be added to the pastry-covered pie just before taking it from the oven.

And, of course, the funnel prevents the pastry lid of the pie from sagging down on to the moist filling. The Grimwade pottery even produced a version with a specially wide shoulder just below the top to give added support to the pastry. This is an important consideration when you are using shortcrust, flaky or puff pastry, all of which should be baked fast, at high heat, for the crispest and most delicious result.

In her magnificent book, Food in England, Dorothy Hartley describes an old pigeon pie in which the filling is first covered with suet pastry and after cooking is covered again with a layer of shortcrust pastry - supported, I imagine, by a pie funnel wedged into the suet crust - before the final baking. "To serve," she writes, "cut a slice out of the top crust, lift out a square of the dumpling paste, arrange a pigeon, the piece of beef it cooked upon, some mushrooms, and ham or bacon scraps, upon this square of paste (like fellow travellers on a raft); pour gravy round, and top it with a slice of the pie crust."

Victorian straight-sided pie funnels can be found in junk shops and on market stalls. On display in Mr and Mrs St John Stimson's fascinating Museum of the Home in the shadow of Pembroke Castle is a charming example with the words "The Gourmet Pie Funnel" emblazoned on its side. Fortunately, plain straight-sided pie funnels are still produced in England; the Staffordshire pottery of Mason Cash makes them to match their brown stone pie dishes.

Was it, I wonder, the old custom of thinning out a rookery each spring and putting the birds in a pie that prompted some potter to fashion a pie funnel in the shape of a black bird? Or was it the nursery rhyme that inspired pie birds? Attractive old English ones can be found for up to pounds 15 each in antique shops, though I'm afraid the contemporary white porcelain birds are now imported from France.


From Darina Allen's superb new book, Irish Traditional Cooking (Kyle Cathie pounds 19.99)

Serves 10-12

breasts from 4-6 pigeons

half their weight in streaky bacon

their weight in lean beef

bacon fat or olive oil for frying

8 baby carrots or sticks of carrots

10-12 button onions

1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed

1-2 teaspoons flour

225ml/8fl oz red wine

225ml/8fl oz homemade beef stock

150ml/14 pint homemade tomato puree, or diluted commercial puree

salt and freshly ground pepper

2 teaspoons chopped thyme and parsley

85g/3oz finely chopped onion

30g/loz butter

225g/8oz wild or cultivated mushrooms, sliced

2 teaspoon each chopped chives and chopped parsley

120ml/4fl oz cream

225g/8oz prepared puff pastry

Cut the pigeon meat, bacon (discard the rind), and beef into 2.5cm/1in pieces. Cook the bacon in the fat or oil until crisp, then use a slotted spoon to transfer to a 2.3 litre/4 pint casserole. Add the pigeon and beef, a few pieces at a time, to the pan and toss until they change colour. Add to the casserole. Turn the carrots, onions and crushed garlic in the frying pan, then add to the casserole. Stir the flour into the remaining fat in the pan for one to two minutes, then stir or whisk in the wine, stock and tomato puree. Bring to the boil and pour over the meat and vegetables in the casserole. Season with salt and pepper, add the thyme and parsley. Cover and cook for one to two hours (depending on age of the pigeons) in a low oven, 150C/300F/Gas 2-3.

Meanwhile, cook the chopped onion in the butter until soft but not coloured. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the onions to a plate. Increase the heat and cook the mushrooms, in batches if necessary. Season the mushrooms with salt and pepper, add the onions, chives and parsley and the cream and cook together for three to four minutes. Add to the cooked pigeon mixture, allow to cool, then pour into a deep pie dish.

Place a pie bird in the centre of the dish and cover with the puff pastry. Bake in an oven preheated to 230C/450F/Gas 8 for 10 minutes, then lowered to 190C/375F /Gas 5 for 20 minutes.