Sunday 4 December 2011

Elizabeth Rainbow's Skirret Pie

An Early Modern Pie from Rose Castle, Cumbria

Because of the sizeable mountain of skirrets that I have extracted from my garden, I decided this week to make a skirret pie from a recipe in a very special English manuscript cookery book. This is the wonderful Receipt Book of Elizabeth Rainbow ( d.1702), the wife of Edward Rainbow, Bishop of Carlisle (1608-84). The couple lived in the Bishop's Palace at Rose Castle in Cumbria until Edward's death in 1684. Here are Elizabeth's original handwritten instructions.
Photo © Dalemain Estates.
Elizabeth Rainbow. Photo © Dalemain Estates.
Skirret pies seem to have been popular from the Stuart period to the middle of the eighteenth century. Recipes occur frequently in both manuscript and printed collections. Other ingredients such as dates, chestnuts and candied orange peel were usually included in the pie filling. Bone marrow was also popular. These pies were usually filled at the end of baking with a 'lear' or 'caudle', a kind of custard made with wine, sugar and egg yolks. Pies of this kind were also made with artichokes, sweet potatoes and eryngo roots. Below are two other recipes from well-known printed sources.


Take your skirrets and boil them, skin them, then cut them to Lengths about two or three inches. Wash them with yolks of eggs and season with salt, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg. Put to them some chestnuts boiled and blanched and some yolks of hard-boiled eggs split, and lay over some sliced lemon. Put over butter and close it in a raised coffin.
Joseph Cooper. The Art of Cookery. London: 1654.

Boil your biggest skirrets and blanch and season them with cinnamon, nutmeg, and a very little ginger and sugar. Your pye being ready lay in your skirrets; season also the marrow of three or four bones with cinnamon, sugar, a little salt and grated bread. Lay the marrow in your pye and the yolks of hard eggs, a handful of chestnuts boiled and blanched, and some candied Orange-peel in slices. Lay butter on the top and lid your pye. Let your caudle be white wine and sugar, thicken it with the yolks of eggs, and when the pye is baked pour it in and serve it hot. Scrape sugar on it.
E. Smith, The Compleat Housewife, 1727.

Below is a pictorial record of the whole process of making Elizabeth's pie.

Skirrets from John Gerard. The Herball. (1633)
Before you can make a skirret pie you will need to grow some skirrets. I propagate mine every year by dividing up these young root offsets and planting them out about a foot apart. 
Unpeeled skirret roots coming to the boil in a brazen skillet. They take about 8 minutes to cook.
While the skirrets are cooking, a raised pie coffin is made using a very large pie dolly.
The boiled skirrets are peeled
Bone marrow is extracted from some ox bones with a marrow scoop.
The pie coffin is filled with layers of skirrets, bone marrow and dates 
The coffin is filled to within an inch of the top - note the cinnamon.
Detail of a still-life painting by A. Pereda (1678) showing a typical raised pie of the kind made in Elizabeth Rainbow's lifetime. Although this pie is from a Spanish source, very similar pies are illustrated in Robert May's The Accomplisht Cook (London: 1660). I aim to make a pie loosely based on this striking design. 
A lid is added to the pie and the edges crimped. The structure in the centre is called a haystack and is used as a kind of pastry funnel through which the caudle is poured at the end of baking.

The pie is ornamented.
A caudle is prepared by whipping up egg yolks, sack and sugar.
The finished pie is removed from the oven and the caudle poured in through the haystack.
This sort of pie was eaten by removing the lid and spooning  the contents from the coffin. 
Elizabeth Rainbow's skirret pie is related in some ways to the better known mince pie. The addition of bone marrow makes the pie filling very rich. Inside the coffin, the skirrets dissolve in the heat of the oven into an unctuous mush surrounded by dates and the rich caudle, though their distinctive flavour is still strongly evident. This luxurious Caroline pie is incredibly delicious.

Elizabeth and Edward Rainbow's former home of Rose Castle is a remarkable building with an extraordinary history. Since the thirteenth century it has been home to sixty-six Bishops of Carlisle. The Church Commissioners recently decided to put the property up for public auction, but the Friends of Rose Castle, a group passionately committed to saving it, are attempting to raise the funds to purchase it. Fortunately the Church Commissioners have recently agreed to give the group two years to buy the castle for the wider community. 

Phillipa Harrison, one of the friends, says. 'Only one building represents the unique history of the establishment of a Border between Scotland and the North West of England, Rose Castle, created for the Bishopric of Carlisle to administer the “lands which were Scottish”, before Cumbria finally became English a hundred years later than the rest of the country. Also the preeminent English castle in the medieval Scottish wars and reiver skirmishes in the North West, Rose is the only remaining monument to our turbulent border history there. Its retention, with public accessabilty and as an educational resource, is vital for the maintenance of any sort of national historical perspective.' 

Elizabeth Rainbow's skirret pie is a tiny element from the domestic history of Rose Castle brought back to life. If you would be interested in knowing more or becoming a friend of Rose Castle, there is a link to the website below. As part of the fund raising effort, I am planning to produce an entire seventeenth century Bishop's feast from Elizabeth's receipt book, which will be served at Rose Castle at some point in 2012. If my skirret harvest next year is as good as this year's, skirret pie will definitely be on the menu. Look out here for more news about this event. 

This blog is created by Historic Food. Go to the Historic Food Website.


  1. I do wish you'd devote a post to the care and propagation of skirrets. I'm growing a few, and they are very healthy, but I'm unclear on when to divide them (only in autumn?), which roots to use (older, younger, thicker, thinner), how long they'll keep after uprooting, and so on. Skirrets are so uncommon that I can't find any worthwhile information online.

  2. Dear Ivan,

    I just wanted to let you know how grateful I am that you posted this recipe on this underutilized root vegetable.I was surprised to learn that skirret was the main starchy root vegetable of europe before the introduction of the potato from South America. I'm attempting to locate some skirret root stock or seeds so that I can utilize this recipe. In the US they are very hard to come by, but "Michael" above me might want to contact the people from "Seed Savers Exchange". They have skirret root stock and seed for exchange or sale from their members.

    1. You don't say where you are from but I found the seeds here. I'm going to try to grow it as well - from what I read it grows really well so that appeals to me. They say it is similar to parsnips so I'm wondering if you can use it in the same recipes you would use parsnips.

  3. Skirrit plants grown from seed have been found to be quite variable. You might get plants with smaller or larger root systems. If you grow a seedling and discover it has good qualities, you can propagate the rooted plantlets (offsets) which cluster around the main stem.