This Baker Is Turning 17th Century Witches’ Broth Into Pie
Four hundred years after the trial of Lancashire’s Pendle witches—12 men and women executed for witchcraft and murder—baker Christine Turner makes pies inspired by the broth served at their illicit gatherings.
All photos by the author.
Double, double, toil and trouble isn't just Shakespearean hocus pocus. There was a time when witches came together across Britain, chanting and cackling over simmering pots of broth.
One of these illicit meetings happened in 1612 on a dark hillside in Lancashire. An assembly of witches gathered around a boiling cauldron to plot how they might free one of their coven from the clutches of the law.
But this fateful gathering was to be their last. Shortly after, 12 of the group—dubbed the "Pendle witches" after the hill on which they met—were executed for murder and the use of witchcraft.
Four hundred years on from the witches' trial, Lancashire baker Christine Turner wanted to know what was in the cauldron.
"I wanted to do something to mark it," Turner explains, adding that she decided to make a dish using the same ingredients as that last broth. "I researched with my husband Keith everything and anything that related to the Pendle witches and got the gist of it all. Then I practised and practised until I got it right."
This being Lancashire, Turner decided to keep the memory of Pendle witches and the contents of their cauldron alive with that most northern of English dishes: pie.
"I said to Keith, 'I'm going to make a pie,'" she remembers. "He thought I was mad but I'm best at pies and Malkin Pie is what I came up with."
Turner has been making pies and cakes for decades, supplying local businesses with fruit pies, cheese and onion pies, scones, crumbles, and cakes. But her Malkin Pie—named after Malkin Tower, the place the witches met to plot together on Pendle Hill—is completely unique.
Since its creation, the pie has become something of a local speciality. Unlike the unpalatable "fenny snake" and "toe of frog" Shakespeare had the witches cooking in Macbeth, Malkin Pie combines the altogether more pleasant lamb, vegetables, beef, and bacon, before being topped with dumplings.
"We sell it at markets. People come and look at it and then tell me they've never heard of it," says Turner. "And I say, 'Well you won't have, because this isn't a bog standard pie. Do you want to know about it?'"
Understanding why Turner makes the pie in such a way involves a trip back to a time when Lancashire was considered a wild and lawless place, rife with superstition, and opposed to the "new" Protestant religion.
In 1612 Alizon Device, known as a local witch round Pendle, cursed a pedlar named John Law when he refused to sell her pins. A short while later, Law suffered a stroke. Device was arrested and confessed that she'd told the Devil to lame him. She also accused her grandmother—known as Old Demdike—and members of rival family the Chattoxes of witchcraft. Anne Chattox, her mother Old Chattox, and Old Demdike all joined Device on trial.
Shortly after, Device's brother James called a meeting at Malkin Tower. "When the first four witches came to trial, James stole a sheep from the adjoining field to cook and eat. That's the lamb layer," explains Turner. She slow cooks the lamb—infused with thyme—and leaves it to cool overnight so that it's cold when added to the pie base and makes a clear layer. "They added root vegetables to the pot so I use leeks, celery, carrot, and swede. Then they used beef and bacon. What you've got to remember is that they'd have eaten all these ingredients as a casserole or a broth, with dumplings on the top. It would have been too sloppy for a pie."
It sounds delicious so it's no wonder that people who were sympathetic to the Device family joined James for the feast. But it was also a mistake they'd come to regret. The local judge got word that the group had met and arrested another eight people. All 12 were taken to trial at the local assizes court and Old Demdike never survived the damp dungeon cells of Lancaster Castle.
The others, found guilty, were hanged on Gallows Hill in Lancaster.
"When people hear the story, they buy the pie. Then when they've tried it, they call us up to order more," says Turner. "There are a lot of people who come and tell us that they're related to the Demdikes or the Devices. They're into it big time around here."
Today, it's hard to imagine Pendle Hill as a sinister place. It's tranquil looking—like an elephant sleeping on its side when you look at it from a distance—and people in this part of the world are warm, welcoming, and friendly.
"Eileen from two doors up cuts up my vegetables for me. I use best beef steak and onion and it's all local meat from the local butcher," adds Turner. "Everything's traceable."
In true Lancashire fashion, the feast at Malkin Tower was probably a dinner between friends, rather than a sinister gathering of plotting mavens. Taking another cue from the witches' dinner, Turner tops the pie with what she calls a "wiccan dumpling crust."
"It's a mix of suet, flour, and fresh chives. I add egg and milk and a bit of water and make it into pastry for the top," she explains. "God gave us hands to use so all I do is roll it out, pack it down, and crimp the edges."
The Malkin Pie is piled high in a dome of filling and because the meat is pre-cooked, once the pie is baked and sliced open, it's packed to the top still. Each one is also decorated with a small pastry witch.
"The pie put this place on the map, really," says Turner. "It's a bit of an out-of-the-way place but people come from all over on Halloween to Pendle Hill to pay tribute to the Lancashire witches."
Now they can feast like the witches did—and with the addition of a pie crust.