“The perineum of the year”: A round up of 2020

I didn’t come up with the phrase but it’s one I’ve embraced, much to my husband’s disgust. The perineum of the year: that bit in between Christmas and New Year when you can’t remember the last time you showered (let alone got dressed), when you’re left with only Strawberry Creams in the Quality Street tin, and when the entirety of your fridge/house/body smells of stuffing.

Someone in the household will, at some point in the next day or so, suggest going for a jog to start their January health regime early. Encourage them; you can crack into the Toblerone in peace while they’re gone.

And while you’re dribbling chocolate you might enjoy a round up of my top five best and worst experiments this year…

Top Experiments of 2020

Fanfares at the ready: three, two, one – go!

Number 5: Doucetes

Egg custard. Saffron pastry. Indulgence: medieval style.

These wobbly little gems were from the fifteenth century and were the first thing I’d made that felt like they could compete with modern sweets. They were buttery, creamy and rich and I’ve actually made a couple of batches of them since.

Don’t be alarmed by the appearance: they may look a little cellulite-heavy, but once you eat them they will banish all thoughts of cellulite until you next look in the mirror.

Number 4: Farts of Portingale

Do I really need to explain why this one’s on the list?

Number 3: Fish Banquet

I had no idea fish could taste so good. Someone who did, however, was Athenaeus: a 3rd century rhetorician who loved it so much he advised resorting to any method possible – buying, begging or stealing – to get a taste of premium quality seafood.

This was one of the few meals – and they have been few and far between, believe me – which made my husband actually appreciate this blog. The simplicity of the dish was its secret, but so too was the delightfully Mediterranean cooking method.

I enjoyed wrapping the prawns in fig leaves and burying them in hot coals to roast slowly. I enjoyed slicing the side dish of radishes so thinly they looked like little discs of stained glass in the sunlight. What I enjoyed slightly less was the horror I felt when the lady on the fish counter at Sainsburys told me the price of the tuna steaks she’d just cut for me and social awkwardness made me say “yes, that’s fine” instead of “sorry, are you mad? How much?”

Buy, beg or steal, you say?

Number 2: A Bengali Meal

The most self indulgent thing I’ve written all year, but the one that seems to have resonated with quite a few people. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but it made me feel a little bit more connected to my family’s history and was also a great excuse to eat my body weight in ghee.

Number 1: Anglo-Saxon Bread

Bread? Just…bread? At number one?

This was one of the first things I made and it’s probably the thing I’ve made the most since. It never, ever ceases to amaze me how simple and ingenious it is: bread, water and a pinch of salt (if you want to be fancy.) And ta-da! A warm, filling, palm sized disc of bread that tastes good with literally everything I’ve tried so far.

This bread has helped a leftover stew for one stretch to two people as a midweek meal, when we couldn’t be bothered to wait for pasta or rice to cook. I have made cheese sandwiches out of this bread for my daughter’s lunch in the height of lockdown when we’d run out of Hovis but I felt too anxious to go outside and buy more. We’ve eaten this bread smothered in salty butter and dipped in jam at breakfast (admittedly that time it backfired because my daughter thought I was cooking pancakes and was very disappointed when she realised I was not.)

More than anything else, bread is the thing that I think connects us most to our past. Egg tarts are tastier but required more money, time, skill. Fish banquets are more beautiful, but not everyone had access to fresh fish. Farts sound funnier but… actually, I don’t have a comeback to that one.

But bread was eaten by everyone. The only real difference was whether you ate fine white bread made from wheat or some form of ‘lower class’ bread made with barley flour or worse.

The act of making bread – kneading – also hasn’t changed despite centuries of developments. Sure, you can use a bread maker or mixer if you like but you won’t get as good results (and it won’t be as fun) compared to just using your hands and feeling when it’s ready – when the tension in the dough’s just right, when the flour’s been completely combined…

Of course the beauty of this recipe is that it doesn’t require much kneading at all – if any. It was intended to be a quick meal to fuel a tired army, it could act as a reliable form of rent, or just as an easy lunch with a hunk of cheese for a hungry child. Whatever its use, bread was one of the few things that could unify people from across the social classes and it’s the thing that brought me closest to understanding people from the past.

“Just bread”, you say?

Worst experiments of 2020

Because this year has been a disaster in more ways than one…

Number 5: Stuffed Goat

Goat is a widely eaten and much loved meat for millions of people around the world. My own dad counts himself as someone who enjoyed a good goat curry when he was growing up. For this reason I thought I was ready to try it myself: I was not.

This was a top 5 worst experiment not so much because of the recipe itself but because it highlighted how far I still have to go until my cooking skills are anything higher than “mostly haphazard, occasionally decent” (genuine quote, by the way.)

Was it the fact I forgot the tin foil tent and didn’t baste the meat, thus rendering it tougher than leather, that ruined this experiment? Maybe. Perhaps it was the fact that half way through cooking this I decided now would be the perfect time to quickly attempt some minor DIY and remove the cot sides from my toddler’s bed – a task that was ended up being neither minor or quick, but which did mean I missed the timer when it went off.

Either way, this was not a triumph.

Number 4: Stewed Rabbit

Just slightly worse than the goat was the rabbit.

Again, my cooking skills probably didn’t help with the terrible outcome of this but the difference here is that I think the recipe was also, well, terrible.

When I started this blog I knew very little about historical cooking. Like many others, I was mistaken in thinking food of the past was either dishes of bland gruel or over-spiced rotting meat. Also like many others, I was mistaken in thinking that Mrs Beeton was some sort of Victorian culinary goddess, come to pull us out of our uninspired ways and bless us with the knowledge of flavour.

Well let me tell you: Mrs Beeton was the patron saint of bland and uninspired.

Harsh? Perhaps. But this rabbit dish managed to be one of the few that I ended up not serving to my husband out of a genuine fear he would divorce me if I tried.

Number 3: Turkey Twizzlers

Nothing has ever encapsulated the meaning of ‘rose tinted spectacles’ quite like turkey twizzlers.

I’m really loathe to stick this post in my top worst experiments because it’s actually one of my best pieces of writing (I think.) And yet the outcome of that day of cooking was so hideously disgusting, and my kitchen was so covered in fat and grease, that I can’t deny its place on this list.

These are also on the ‘worst of 2020’ list because the day I made these my mother-in-law had popped over for a socially distanced catch up in our garden. I panicked that she – elegant and sophisticated woman she is – would despair at her son’s choice of partner when she saw me making these, so I’m posting them here so she knows that I know they’re dreadful. Okay?

(A week or so after I published the original post, though, Bernard Matthews announced turkey twizzlers were making a come back. Coincidence? I think not…)

Number 2: Nut Custard

Oh God. Just thinking about this makes me want to be sick.

This was my first foray into the ancient desserts of Apicius and I was ill prepared. Nut custard looked like some sort of rotting alien body part. It had eggs in it, it had nuts, it had honey. It also had… fish sauce. The fish sauce was the thing that got me – even once it was baked I still thought I could smell and taste it at the back of my throat.

The editors of the recipe said that Apicius rarely gave measurements or quantities, which meant that “in the hands of an inexperienced operator [the recipe] would result in failure.” At the time I had scoffed and had carried on to failure – just as predicted. Despite being slightly less inexperienced than I was back in February, I have yet to reattempt this one.

Number 1: Egges in Moneshine

When I was seven I ate a spider web by accident. There’s not an interesting backstory, you’re just going to have to accept that it happened and it was an accident. I have no idea if the spider was part of my unexpected snack, but at the time it was the worst thing I’d ever eaten.

When I was at uni I was given a plate of deep fried chicken wings that were still raw and bloody inside. That was then the worst thing I’d ever eaten.

When I was 27 I ate stuffed goat, stewed rabbit, turkey twizzlers and nut custard and all of them were the worst thing I’d ever eaten.

But then I ate egges in moneshine.

And I would eat a thousand spider webs – spiders included – and a thousand raw chicken wings and a thousand nut custards to never, not ever, have to put egges in moneshine in my mouth again. If 2020 was a food, it would be egges in moneshine and God only knows how much we’ve all hated this year.

Thank you and Happy New Year

So that’s it! My first year done.

Thank you very much to everyone who has read, shared, commented and supported me on this blog. It started as an overeager New Year’s resolution and I never thought it would pick up any interest beyond my mum (and to be honest I think both she and I thought one of us would lose interest around February) but it seems a few people quite like it, so thank you.

I hope you have a very happy, warm, healthy New Year and I’ll see you in 2021 for lots more historical triumphs and disasters.

Ellie x

Reading lists (I’m a teacher, what did you expect?)

Below is a list of some of the best food history sites and blogs. No arguments – in fact, why are you still hanging around here?

  • British Food: A History – Dr Neil Buttery’s long running and exceptionally well researched and detailed blog on the the history of British food.
  • Foods of England – Fabulous site of the history of the forgotten foods of England, with recipes.
  • Food timeline – An incredible index of food by late food history librarian Lynne Olver.
  • Medieval Cookery – A huge database of recipes from the medieval period across Europe.
  • Monk’s Modern Medieval Cuisine – Written by Dr Christopher Monk who has an expert knowledge of the recipes in Forme of Cury, and also the etymology of modern and medieval food.
  • Pass the Flamingo – Excellent site on the recipes and history of ancient dishes.
  • Project Gutenberg – immense database of free texts including Apicius, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management and Forme of Cury.
  • Silk Road Gourmet by Laura Kelley – a fantastic blog by author Laura Kelley, delving into the ancient texts and recipes of Mesopotamia and other ancient Asian countries and empires.
  • Tasting History – Something for YouTube fans! Brilliant channel bringing history and food to life.
  • Tavola Mediterranea – if there’s anything Farrell Monaco doesn’t know about Roman cuisine it’s not worth knowing – great website with recipes and history-inspired culinary tools to buy.
  • The Regency Cook – Paul Couchman, cook at the Regency Townhouse in Hove, runs a blog with recipes and brilliant cookery courses based on 1830’s techniques and recipes.

“All I want for Christmas is bread sauce”: A brief history.

The day of judgement is almost upon us.

Soon we will be called forth to follow the Christmas commandments of our lord and saviour Delia (or Nigella, whichever you prefer) and begin the rituals: the chopping, the stirring, the basting. We will sing the hymns of Wizzard and share communion of a bucks fizz (or two) well before 9am.

Whether you’re a ‘presents first thing in the morning’ kind of person or a masochist who waits until after lunch, there’s one thing you should know: the day is made or broken by the quality of the bread sauce.

It’s an opinion I haven’t seen too much online and yet it’s one my whole family shared when I was growing up. In fact, so seriously do my family take bread sauce that no one except mum was allowed to make it and the first year I took over my sister insisted mum make a ‘back up’ vat too.

‘Vat’ might seem an odd way to measure bread sauce – after all, it’s a once a year accompaniment, right? Just another sauce to go with the cranberry jelly and the gravy. Surely ‘jug’ would be better?

You might think so, but you’d be wrong; growing up our family of four tripled the recipe. The recipe that, as standard, served 8 people. For us, ‘vat’ is an entirely appropriate measurement – nay, the only appropriate measurement – when it comes to bread sauce.

Someone corrected my mother’s annotation that 3x the recipe was too much. Luckily, 2018 saw the return of my appetite and thus the return of triple portions.

That seems…excessive

Tis the season.

Anyway, I’d done an obligatory mince pie post to celebrate the festivities, but what I was really excited about was delving into the history of my very own reason for the season.

For the uninitiated, proper bread sauce contains nothing but bread, butter, milk and cream, an onion and some spices. It should look a little like porridge and taste creamy and mild and ever so slightly fragrant. Its flavours are best approximately 8-12 hours after lunch when it’s eaten cold from the fridge in gelatinous mounds off a silver spoon, or between two slices of cheap white bread which have been buttered and dotted with leftover stuffing bits. In short, if anything was going to prove the existence of God to me at this time of year, it’d be a perfect bowl of Delia’s bread sauce, not a nativity scene.

Using bread to thicken sauces was an ancient technique, but I was interested to see if there were any old recipes which made bread the central part of the sauce itself and what those recipes tasted like. Were any of them even remotely similar to modern bread sauce? Were they served alongside turkey? Was there any historical precedent for cooking up entire vats of the stuff, or was it just a bonkers tradition unique to my family?

Galentyne: 1390.

Take crustes of brede & grynde hem smale; do þerto poudour of galyngale, of canel, of gynger, and salt it; temper hyt with vyneger & drawe it vp þorow a straynour & messe hit forth.

Take crusts of bread and finely grind them; to this add powder of galangal, cinnamon and ginger, and salt it; temper it with vinegar, and blend it through a strainer, and serve it forth.

Forme of Cury. Text and translation copyright Christopher Monk 2020

Galentyne was the earliest English precursor to bread sauce I could find. Forme of Cury, where this recipe comes from, was compiled around 1390 and was the cook book for Richard II’s master cooks. Being a 14th century recipe, galentyne wasn’t intended to be eaten with turkey, but it also didn’t give any indication what it was an accompaniment to. Knowing how the rich ate in the 14th century it could have been anything: pork, beef, porpoise, swan, seal…

Dr. Christopher Monk, who has written a post about the various galentynes of Forme of Cury, points out that the word ‘galentyne’ is pretty hard to pin down. In some recipes it appears as a sauce, in others a jelly. It can be served hot, or cold. Some versions use vinegar, others use only wine, some both.

The first thing I noticed was a lack of quantities. This was totally standard for the 14th century and just as totally unhelpful as it sounds, especially given the only liquid in this recipe was vinegar.

I blitzed a handful of white bread crusts with the ground spices and added tablespoon after tablespoon of white wine vinegar until I ended up with a fairly thick paste, which I pushed through a sieve before trying.

Perhaps I tried too much at first, because the first taste was like eating a tablespoon of acid. My lips tried to eat themselves as they curled back from the sourness and my eyes began to prickle but once the initial assault was over I began to appreciate the tartness and the aftertaste, which wasn’t too bad: slightly spicy and salty.

I even went back for more, this time a small smear on a bit of ham and it was actually delicious. It reminded me a bit of a pickle, the sort of thing you’d serve with chutneys and mustards and piccalilli; I reckon I’d make this to serve alongside a Christmas ham in future years.

You do not need to triple the recipe for this one.

Was it a good approximation of modern bread sauce, though? No, not even close. It had vaguely the right consistency and colour, but that’s where the similarities ended. I moved onto the next recipe.

Henry VIII’s rabbit sauce: 1594.

Fine Sauce for a roasted Rabbet: used to king Henrie the eight. TAKE a handfull of washed Parcelie, minced small, boil it with butter and vergious upon a chafingdish, season it with Sugar, and a litle pepper grose beaten: when it is readie, put in a few crums of white bread amongst the others let it boile againe til it be thick: then lay it in a platter, like the bredth of three fingers, lay of each side one rosted Cony or more so serue them.

The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin, Thomas Dawson.

This seemed more like it; no mention of vinegar and plenty of butter. There was still a worrying lack of cream or milk to give the sauce a decent thick creaminess, but it was moving in the right direction and, as the recipe suggested it had been served to Henry VIII himself, it seemed promising that it’d be rich and filling at least.

I placed the chopped parsley, butter and verjuice in a pan and let it boil together for a minute or two. Verjuice is just the juice of unripe grapes. You can make it yourself, but it’s easier to buy a bottle “just to have in for historical experiments.” Once bought, the bottle will take up cupboard space in your kitchen and your husband will moan that it just adds to the clutter and never gets used.

As soon as the butter had melted I added sugar, pepper and a handful of breadcrumbs and…panicked. The recipe definitely said ‘sauce’, but the breadcrumbs soaked the liquid up like a sponge. It didn’t resemble a sauce at all, no matter how much more verjuice or butter I added, it just stayed a dense mass. I re-read the recipe; it suggested the ‘sauce’ be served “the breadth of three fingers” which suggested some sort of solidity but I was still a bit taken aback, especially as it was easier to cut with a knife rather than spoon onto a plate and looked alarmingly like pork stuffing.

A sausage of bread sauce, sire?

In terms of flavour, however, this was by far the most pleasant. It was rich and buttery, like a good bread sauce should be. Modern bread sauce has a slight sweetness to it, but this was far sweeter than I was used to because of the verjuice and added sugar.

The main flavour was parsley, which unfortunately wasn’t like a good bread sauce at all. Good bread sauce should be stodgy and carbohydrate heavy, with nary a hint of anything as healthy as a green herb in sight. Henry VIII’s nailed the stodginess (perhaps a little too well…) but the overeager abundance of parsley in this one meant it still wasn’t right. I moved on.

Gallendine sauce for a Turkey: 1653

Take some Claret Wine, and some grated Bread, and a sprig of Rosemary, a little beaten Cloves, a little beaten Cinnamon, and some Sugar.

A True Gentlewomans Delight, Elizabeth GreyCountess of Kent

Did I really want to make another version of galentyne again? No, of course not, and besides I was pretty sure I didn’t have enough vinegar left. But what intrigued me about this recipe was that it specified serving it with turkey, just like modern bread sauce.

The first thing that struck me in this recipe was the addition of claret wine. True bread sauce should be white. I began to feel very nervous as I poured wine over my heap of breadcrumbs and watched them turn white to deepest red.

There was no cooking to be done here, so once the herbs and spices had been added I assumed it was done.

Bread would be a good tool for mopping up a murder scene, I think.

This was the most unpleasant of the lot, which surprised me. I think I’d assumed because it was the latest of the three it would somehow be the best – as if time would afford the creator of the recipe some additional skill or appreciation for good bread sauce. Of the three, however, this was the only one we ended up not being able to finish.

Consistency wise it was the closest to modern bread sauce, but appearance wise it was about as far away as you could get: bold and bright and covered in twigs. The taste was also nothing like bread sauce: it was just wine with soggy lumps of bread and the occasional sprig of rosemary poking you in the gums. No, thank you.

The verdict.

The closest taste to modern bread sauce was probably Henry VIII’s rabbit sauce. The addition of butter made it by far the creamiest of the lot but the appearance was more like a log of sausage meat than a sauce. None of them were very good matches – either too acidic, too solid or too alcoholic, which just goes to show that having bread as an ingredient does not a bread sauce make.

Three bowls of bread, none of them sauce.

By this point I was beginning to suspect that Delia had invented the perfect recipe for bread sauce through divine intervention rather than historical evolution… and then I found Hannah Glasse’s 1747 recipe:

Bread sauce for Roasted Partridge

Bread sauce…made thus: Take about a handful or two of crumbs of bread, put in a pint of milk or more, a small whole onion, a little whole white pepper, a little salt, and a bit of butter, boil it all well up; then take the onion out and beat it with a spoon.

The Art of Cookery, Hannah Glasse.

Given Delia’s militarily precise and inflexible timings for Christmas day lunch, I don’t know how much she’d approve of Hannah’s somewhat lackadaisical approach to the quantities and measurements here, but I couldn’t fault the foundations of the recipe. Bread? Check. Milk? Check. Butter? Check. Wine, vinegar, verjuice? No, no, no – thank God.

So, were any of the three I made worthy of triple portions? No. But, more importantly, did any of them make the cut for this year’s Christmas Day table? Also no – it’s meant to be a day of unbridled joy and pleasure for God’s sake.

For the day itself I’ll stick to Delia’s bread sauce recipe, but maybe now I’ll pause before dunking my head into the bowl and remind my husband and daughter of the rich history of the stuff – much to their delight, I’m sure. And if there’s one positive to the Christmas lockdown, it’s that my mum – who texted to tell me I had “better not let her down” with this post – wasn’t around to see some of the unfortunate origins of her beloved side dish.

Merry Christmas!

E x

“The principal season for the killing of hogs”: Christmas-Pyes 1728

We had a Christmas tradition when I was growing up. Perhaps tradition is the wrong word; superstition might be better. Mum would bring the mince pies out around the first week of December and they’d sit on the plate patiently while we all ignored them and ate biscuits and chocolate instead.

Eventually the yule log and gingerbread men would be gone and we had no option but to acknowledge the pies’ existence. The superstition went like this: you could eat as many as you liked, but you couldn’t speak a word until the last crumb had been licked from your lips. Each pie you ate silently bought a month of good luck for the coming year.

And…as I type that I realise it may have been a superstition invented by my mother to buy herself some peace and quiet during the school holidays. Regardless, mince pies seemed an obvious choice for my first ever Christmas post!

The secret is to use real Englishmen.

Why ‘mince’ pies?

The earliest recipes for mince pies (or pies that us modern folk would call mince pies) contained minced or shredded meat, as well as fruit and spices. Meatless mince pies are a relatively modern concept and began around the start of the 19th century, although suet was still a popular ingredient. Traditionally these pies would have been all kinds of shapes and sizes, often quite intricate but have today become boringly round.

Today’s mince pie experiments are of the meat-and-fruit variety and appear as ‘Christmas Pyes’ in Richard Bradley’s The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director. This was intended to be a useful manual for farmers and their families and contained not only recipes but practical farming advice and jobs to be done in each month. December, if you’re interested, is “the principal season for the killing hogs” – perfect for when you’ve run out of board games and need a festive family activity.

Killing hogs in December was all well and good and no one seemed to have a problem with this. The thing that seemed to really divide people, that seemed to get them properly foaming at the mouth, was the name of the pastries: Christmas pies.

Christmas pies – cute name or sign of the devil?

It all depended on who you asked.

Check any history textbook and it’ll show: the Puritans banned Christmas. It’s probably the only thing most of us remember from year 8 history lessons. Unfortunately, like most historical facts, it’s false. Or hugely exaggerated, at least. As Foods of England shows, nothing was outright or nationally banned at all; at some local levels certain individuals attempted to ensure 25th December was business as usual but these miserable souls were, for the most part, roundly ignored.

In 1650 – three years before before Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector – the writer Robert Fletcher made fun of Puritans and their supposed hatred of Christmas – and fear of Catholic conspiracies – by writing an imaginary dialogue between two Puritanical “zealots” on the topic of Christmas and, yes, Christmas pies:

Christ-mass? Give me my beads: the name implies
A plot by its ingredients beef and pyes.
A feast Apocryphal,
A popish rite, kneaded in dough in the night…
An annual dark-lanthorn Jubile:
Catesby and Vaulx baked in conspiracie [sic]…”

Robert Fletcher, ‘Christmas Day; Or the Shutle of an inspired Weaver bolted against the Order of the Church for its Solemnity’

In 1720, just to really cement the idea that Christmas pies were to Puritans what bulbs of garlic are to vampires, Thomas Lewis wrote that fanatical Puritans in the civil war had decried Christmas pies as “abomination[s]”.

Then, in December 1733, The Gentlemen’s Magazine published an essay on Christmas pies by the curiously named Philo-Clericus. Despite proclaiming a “love” of them, he suggested Christmas pies were only “in vogue” during winter “owing to the barrenness of the season and the scarcity of fruit and milk to make tarts, custards and other desserts…” And as someone who would rather lick the crumbs from the yule log plate before eating a whole mince pie, I can kind of see his point.

Philo-Clericus goes on to describe how it wasn’t just Puritans, but Quakers too, who hated these festive treats. According to Phil, Quakers viewed Christmas pies as “an invention of the scarlet whore of Babylon, an hodge-podge of superstition, popery, the devil and all his works.”

I mean, how could I resist?

The recipe.

Take an Ox-Heart, and parboil it, or a Neat’s-Tongue, boil’d without drying or salting, or the Inside of a Surloin of Beef; chop this small, and put to each Pound two Pounds of clean Beef-Suet, cleaned of the Skins and Blood, and chop that as small as the former; then pare, and take the Cores out of eight large Apples, and chop them small, grate then a Two-penny-Loaf; and then add two or three Nutmegs grated, half an Ounce of fresh Cloves, as much Mace, a little Pepper and Salt, and a Pound and a half of Sugar; then grate in some Lemon and Orange-Peel, and squeeze the Juice of six Oranges, and two Lemons, with half a Pint of Sack, and pour this into the Mixture.

Take care to put in two Pounds of Currans to every Pound of Meat, and mix it well; then try a little of it over the Fire, in a Sauce-pan, and as it tastes, so add what you think proper to it: put this in an earthen glaz’d Pan, and press it down, and you may keep it till Candlemas, if you make it at Christmas.

Memorandum: When you put this into your Pyes, press it down, and it will be like a Paste.When you take these Pyes out of the Oven, put in a Glass of Brandy, or a Glass of Sack or White Wine, into them, and stir it in them.

Richard Bradley, The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director.

The method.

Ox heart and ox tongue were quite hard to come by. I don’t know how easy it is to get hold of them usually but for some weird reason, on the week of the 14th December, the shops and butchers were all more preoccupied with selling turkeys, ham or big joints of beef instead, so I used the inside of a sirloin steak for the meaty part of these.

I added beef suet, chopped apple, breadcrumbs, spices, lemon and orange peel and a good glug of brandy to the chopped sirloin and then left the mixture overnight to mingle.

It looked a bit worrying, but it smelled amazing.

The second half of the recipe made it sound as though these pies were meant to be open to accommodate the addition of more alcohol after baking, but I chose to bake mine with a crust on top because, as I’ve stated numerous times before, I don’t believe a pie is a pie unless it has a full crust (top and bottom). The additional alcohol, I decided, would just have to be drunk as an accompaniment.

The recipe wasn’t clear which type of pastry should be used. By the 18th century, pastry had moved on a bit from just a basic flour and water mixture and, given the richness of the filling, I thought I needed something special.

Luckily, Richard Bradley had included a pastry section in his recipe book, and I selected the one I thought would go best – “sweet paste”.

If you would have a sweet Paste; then take half a pound of butter, and rub it into about a pound of flour, with two or three ounces of double-refined sugar powder’d, and make it a Paste, with cold milk, some sack and brandy. This is a very good one.

Richard Bradley, The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director.

A very good one it was indeed, with its sugar and double helping of yet more alcohol. As the smells of brandy and mincemeat and, er, minced meat mixed and wafted round the air as the pies were baking, I began to feel very merry. Perhaps it was the festive atmosphere or the several glugs of sherry I’d drunk to check it was okay to serve alongside the pies (always best to double check, I think), but I suddenly felt more Christmassy than I had done all December. By the time the buzzer went off I was practically ready to open the presents and carve the turkey.

The verdict.

My husband, lured downstairs by the smell of festive baking, couldn’t wait to get started.

“Don’t tell me what’s in them, I don’t want to know,” he said as he took a bite. “They smell better than anything else you’ve made so far and I don’t want you to ruin it for me.”

They didn’t just smell great, they tasted great too. Like, unbelievably good: buttery, spicy, fruity. The meat was more of an aftertaste rather than a flavour on its own, and the pastry was glorious – flaky and rich as Christmas pastry should be.

The abundance of spices and sugar and meat probably made these a treat to be enjoyed only by the rich at this time of year and, frankly, the alarming amount of butter and suet used which melted and bubbled up out of the pan as they cooked meant that modern day folk probably wouldn’t want to eat these all year round, either.

I made about 14 and even though I’m not a mince pie fan, they were all gone 48 hours later. I’m not 100% sure what the meat added, other than a slightly more savoury element than usual, but the addition of sirloin certainly didn’t detract from the pies either.

Even the little skater on the plate’s dancing with joy at how well these turned out.

Merry Christmas (in more ways than one…)

It’s unclear exactly when mince pie recipe writers dropped the meat element. Recipes in Mrs Beeton’s 1861 version still contained meat although it appears meaty mince pies were on the decline by this point as subsequent editions only printed versions for her meatless mince pies.

If like me you’re struggling to get properly ‘into’ Christmas this year – if you’ve had plans cancelled at the last minute, or the year’s been, frankly, a bit shit and you just want it all over with – but you want to give the Christmas spirit one last kick up the bum to try and get it going again, you could do a lot worse than giving these mince pies a go. And if they don’t manage to bring back the festive feeling they will at least get you a little too tipsy to mind! Merry Christmas!

E x

Christmas Pyes

For the mincemeat:
500g currants
200g shredded beef suet
160g sugar
2 apples, peeled, cored and diced
Zest of 1 lemon and its juice
Zest of 2 oranges and their juice
1 sirloin steak
1 small cob, grated into breadcrumbs
1/2 teaspoon mace
1 teaspoon nutmeg
Salt and pepper
4 or 5 cloves, crushed
5 or 6 tablespoons of brandy or sherry

For the pastry:
150g plain flour
75g butter
28g sugar
Milk or brandy or sherry

  1. Chop the sirloin steak up as small as you can.
  2. Add the steak to a bowl with the other mincemeat ingredients and mix. Leave to stand in a fridge overnight.
  3. For the pastry, rub flour, butter and sugar together.
  4. Add as much milk, brandy or sherry as you like to form to a sticky but still pliable dough.
  5. Roll the dough out on a floured surface to as thin as you can.
  6. Butter a mince pie tin or a standard muffin tin and cut out circles of dough to fit into the holes.
  7. Place a few spoons of mincemeat in each pastry case.
  8. Cut out slightly smaller circles to fit on top of the mince pies and place them on, pushing down at the edges to seal them.
  9. Brush with egg wash, slash a hole in the top of each pie with a knife and bake at 180 degrees for 25-30 minutes until golden brown.