The Mince Pie is Traditional only in Name
Nothing says Christmas quite like a mince pie and a glass of mulled wine, but the filling of dried fruits and spices is not as traditional as the pie itself. Indeed the rich, sticky, sweet fruits wrapped in pastry that we call a ‘traditional’ mince pie are a relative new comer, with this festive treat having changed in taste and shape over the centuries.
As the name suggests mince pies were originally filled with meat, such as mutton. Indeed since the Medieval period meat pies were enriched with fruits and spices, but by the nineteenth century most mincemeat recipes had lost the inclusion of chopped meat although they did retain the animal suet. The 17th century poet, Robert Herrick describes the making of truly traditional mincemeat with great appreciation and gives testimony to its original ingredients:
Drink now the strong Beere,
Cut the white loafe here,
The while the meat is shredding
For the rare Mince-Pie;
And the Plums stand by
To fill the Paste that’s kneading.
The choice of meat used in the mincemeat was all down to budget and availability; with beef, tongue, goose and mutton all being popular choices, but the essence of the mince pie is a rich and heady blend of spices, mixed with a high proportion of dried fruits and suet. For a real taste of historical Christmas the recipe below is well worth the effort of recreating:
Take a Legge of Mutton, and cut the best of the flesh from the bone, and parboyl it well then put to it three pound of the best Mutton suet & shred it very small; then spread it abroad, and fashion it with Salt Cloves and Mace: then put in good store of Currants, great Raisins and Prunes clean washed and picked a few Dates sliced, and some Orenge-pils sliced ; then being all well mixt together, put it into a coffin, or into divers coffins, and so bake them
and when they are served up, open the lids and strow store of Sugar on the top of the meat and upon the lid. And in this sort you may also bake Beef or Veal, onely the Beef would not be parboyld, and the Veal will ask a double quantity of Suet.
From Gervase Markham The English Housewife, (London: 1615)
A Tudor Inspired Mince Pie Recipe
If you don’t fancy recreating an original Tudor recipe, then here is a modern Tudor inspired recipe, the result is quite different to that of a modern mince pie, but will certainly prove a talking point at any festive gathering.
To make one Large Pie
For the Mincemeat Filling
250g Minced Mutton
25g butter diced
1 tsp. ground Sea salt
¼ tsp. ground cloves
½ tsp Mace
110g Beef suet shredded
60g Prunes chopped
60g Dates chopped
1 Oranges (zest and juice)
4 tbsp. runny honey
1 tsp. cinnamon
Egg yolk for glazing the pastry
Place the minced mutton, salt, mace, ground cloves and butter into a covered casserole dish and bake in a moderate oven for 30 minutes. Meanwhile mix the cinnamon, orange juice, zest, fruit, honey and suet together, stirring thoroughly. Then mix the fruit mixture with the mutton and pack into a large pastry case, brush with egg yolk to glaze and cook in a moderate oven for 45 minutes, reducing the heat to low, (covering the top of the pie if browning with a loose piece of kitchen foil), cook for a further 1 ½ hours.
For the Pastry
300g plain flour
50g lard (cold and cubed)
50g butter (cold and cubed)
Iced cold water to mix
Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl. Rub the lard and butter into the flour, using your fingertips, until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add enough cold water to mix to a pliable dough, using a round-bladed knife. Be careful not to add too much water as it will make the pastry tough. Knead lightly to bring the pastry together into a soft dough.
Wrap the dough in polythene food wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour before rolling out to use. This pastry will freeze for up to six months.
Now a round and dainty morsel, the mince pie was once a different shape
Not only were mince pies originally filled with a heady mix of spices, fruits and chopped meat, but they were also made in a variety of shapes, some say that an oval or oblong shape was favoured to represent baby Jesus’ manger with the top representing his swaddling clothes. However, there is no conclusive evidence to back up these theories; however, what is certain is that during the Stuart and Georgian periods, mince pies were an expensive luxury, with their precious spices and exotic, imported fruits. As a statement of wealth mince pies were made in a variety of intricate designs with crescents, hearts, knot gardens, emblematic and
flower designs being popular choices.
Whilst the mince pie may have lost some of its prestigious status and it has undoubtedly become a plainer sight, it has not lost its appeal with a reported 370 million mince pies being purchased from supermarkets over the festive period. It is estimated that the average Brit will consume twenty seven mince pies each, but then whilst this may not be good news for the British waistlines it is considered good luck to eat one mince pie for each day of the 12 days of Christmas.
So when trying to eat your mince pie with dignity and avoid mincemeat falling on your best Christmas jumper remember , it is customary to make a wish when you eat your first Christmas mince pie and don’t forget to leave a mince pie out for Santa and that tradition has it that this treat should be eaten in silence.
Visit my blog: Cooking Calendar