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!
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 impliesRobert Fletcher, ‘Christmas Day; Or the Shutle of an inspired Weaver bolted against the Order of the Church for its Solemnity’
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]…”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
For the mincemeat:
200g shredded beef suet
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
Milk or brandy or sherry
- Chop the sirloin steak up as small as you can.
- Add the steak to a bowl with the other mincemeat ingredients and mix. Leave to stand in a fridge overnight.
- For the pastry, rub flour, butter and sugar together.
- Add as much milk, brandy or sherry as you like to form to a sticky but still pliable dough.
- Roll the dough out on a floured surface to as thin as you can.
- Butter a mince pie tin or a standard muffin tin and cut out circles of dough to fit into the holes.
- Place a few spoons of mincemeat in each pastry case.
- 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.
- 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.