Digest bites: Mince pies

Merry Christmas! What’s for dinner? A big old plate of history, as it happens.

History? Kind of stale, no? Surely not. We’re going to do a little looking back on a favourite Christmas treat.

OK, but only until I’m hungry. Where do we start? Hundreds of years ago, where all of our Christmas traditions were born. The humble mince pie has a lot of history behind it, going back to as early as the twelfth century when European crusaders in the Holy Land brought them back, along with Middle Eastern cooking techniques. A popular method they told of was mixing meat with fruit and spices for preservation.

Were they always made with meat? It is often thought so, however, Hannah Glasse’s 1774 book, The Art of Cookery, states: “If you chuse [sic] meat in your pies, parboil a neat’s tongue, peel it, and chop the meat as fine as possible, and mix with the rest; or two pounds of the inside of a surloin [sic] of beef boiled.”

And what about their name? Originally the pies were known by many names: shrid pie by the Tudors, as well as Christmas pie, mutton pie and minced pie to name a few others. Shrid came from mixing beef suet with shredded meat. This was then added to fruit and spices, typically cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg (said to represent the three gifts brought to Jesus by the three wise men). The pies were also large and oblong, supposedly representing Jesus’ crib, and the lid was decorated with a pastry baby. But England experienced a dry spell of all things Christmas under Oliver Cromwell’s ruling in the mid-1600’s. Luckily it was restored some years later, and all laws made between 1642 and 1660 were overturned. The reintroduction of the mince pie saw them reinvented as round and small.

Where they as popular then as they are today? It does seem so if you go by the famed diarist Samuel Pepys’ Christmas entries. He wrote often about mince pies, and his wife Elizabeth seemed keen and adept at making them with regularity. He wrote on Christmas eve 1663: “Thence straight home, being very cold, but yet well, I thank God, and at home found my wife making mince pies”.

But what happened to the meat? Up until the Victorian era recipes still contained mince along with the fruit and spices, but it was during this time that the sweet-only filling became more popular. Mrs Beeton’s Household Management (1861) gives the vegetarian example, while in Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845), Eliza Acton came up with ‘superlative mincemeat’; a mix of lemon, apples and dried fruit. She does however, confess: “We think that the weight of one lemon in meat improves this mixture.”

Got a good old-fashioned recipe I can try? Well I haven’t tested it, but head here to the BBC’s Victorian Christmas microsite, and cook yourself up a proper mincemeat pie.

Comments (1)

  • Peter

    Ah the good old mince pie!
    Over the years i have taken a fancy to heating them up partially in the Microwave before eating them.
    It makes the insides all warm and melty.
    Also a good dollop of cream or hot custard never goes astray!


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