Sunday, 11 December 2016

A Brief History of Mince Pies by Katherine Clements

This weekend I’m making mincemeat. As I scoured the Internet for a suitably simple recipe, I wondered about the history of mince pies and just how far back their association with Christmas goes.

I’m fascinated by receipt books of the 17th century. These were essentially compilations of home remedies, housekeeping and cookery tips, recorded by women (and sometimes men) as 'how to' guides, intended to be passed down through the generations. Some were published. They're a treasure trove of information about domestic life. I suspected they might have a thing or two to say about mince pies. As usual, I ended up down a research rabbit hole.

But before we get to the 17th century, let’s rewind.

The Forme of Cury © University of Manchester Image Library

One of the oldest cookbooks in the world is the Forme of Cury – a late 14th century manuscript detailing recipes from ‘the master cooks of King Richard II’ (and written about by fellow HG, Catherine Hokin here). In it there is a recipe for Tart of Flesh, which contains minced pork, lard and cheese, sweetened with figs, raisins, wine, honey, pine kernels and spices. This is the earliest reference I can find to a pie made with meat and sweetened with dried fruit and spices – an extravagant dish, surely meant to be eaten at times of celebration. It seems that didn’t change much over the ensuing centuries.

It's often said that mince pies were originally made in an oval or square shape, to represent Christ's crib, but food historian, Ivan Day, says there is no evidence to back this up. Instead, pies were often made and presented in intricate shapes and patterns. Several documents give instructions and template designs. The association with Christmas may well have arisen simply because they were a luxury item - a symbol of wealth and prosperity, associated with the feasting and revels of the festive season, particularly Twelfth Night.

17th century mince pie designs. Image © The Welcome Library

In Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book, compiled in the early 17th century, she details a mincemeat recipe including “equal parts of minced cooked mutton, beef suet, currants and raisins with ginger, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, orange rind, salt and a tiny quantity of sugar.” Gervase Markham, famous for his book, The English Huswife, first published in 1615, saw fit to include a very similar recipe:

'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.'

By the way, whilst it’s true that mince pies were associated with Christmas feasting, it’s a myth that Oliver Cromwell made them illegal. There is no mention of mince pies in the various acts and ordinances concerning the celebration of Christmas that were passed during the years of the Commonwealth and Protectorate (see my article about Cromwell and Christmas over on H for History for more info on that). Particularly zealous Puritans might have troubled themselves over the consumption of foods traditionally linked with Christmas – a celebration that had the whiff of Popery about it. This was made much of in the satirical literature of the time, such as in this piece by Royalist poet, John Taylor.

There were lately some over-curious, hot zealous Brethren, who with a superbian predominance did doe what they could to keep Christmas day out of England; they did in divers places Preach Me for dead in Funerall Sermons, and labour’d tooth and nail to bury me alive in the grave of oblivion; they were of opinions, that from the 24. of December at night, till the 7. of January following, that Plumb-Pottage was meer Popery, that a Coller of Brawn was an obhomination, that Roast Beef was Antichristian, that Mince-Pies were Reliques of the Whore of Babylon, and a Goose, aTurkey, or a Capon, were marks of the Beast.

Christmas In and Out (1652)

Mince pies were eaten at other times of year too. Samuel Pepys ate them to celebrate a friend’s wedding in January 1662 (perhaps they were leftovers?) and there are plentiful mentions of them in contemporary literature without any reference to Christmas at all.

Throughout the 18th century, mince pies started to get sweeter, due to the import of cheap sugar from the plantations of the burgeoning British Empire. Recipes in Edward Kidder's Pastry and Cookery (1720) and Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery (1747), both require 1lb sugar – a lot more than Elinor Fettiplace’s ‘tiny quantity’. And by this time, pies had changed shape. The intricate constructions that were a hangover from the Tudor table were abandoned for the circular form we’d recognise today.

Edward Kidder's Minc'd Pyes.

By the 19th century it was still usual for mince pies to include meat. Roast beef was apparently the choice of Queen Victoria’s famous cook Charles Francatelli. His Mincemeat à la Royale also included a liberal dousing of festive booze:

To equal proportions of roast-beef:, raisins, currants, suet, candied citron, orange, lemon, spices and sugar, add a proportionate weight of stewed pears and preserved ginger, the grated rind of three dozen oranges and lemons, and also their juice, one bottle of old rum, one bottle of brandy, and two of old port.


There are clues that the amount of meat was being reduced by this time. Another celebrity chef, Mrs Beeton, included two recipes for mincemeat in the first edition of Mrs Beeton’s Household Management (1861). The first, for "excellent mincemeat" is meat-free, while a second includes 1lb of beef – that might sound a lot to our ears but it was proportionately less than we see in most 17th century versions.

So when did we lose the meat?

It’s hard to say but it’s likely that as the 19th century progressed and sugar became cheaper and widely available, tastes changed. By the 20th century, the only trace left was the suet still used today.

So, if you fancy impressing your nearest and dearest with something historical this Christmas, you could have a go at the BBC’s Victorian Mincemeat recipe and sample mince pies just as Queen Victoria herself would have done. Personally, I’d take a leaf out of Francatelli’s book, and go heavy on the port.

image @Mermaid Photography, Wikicommons


5 comments:

Janie Hampton said...

mm, fascinatng, makes my mouth water! I shall go and eat a mince pie right now. Happy Christmas

Katherine Clements said...

Mincemeat is made. A success! Happy Christmas!

Mary said...

I made Francatelli's working class mincemeat at the weekend - tripe, suet and relatively low on fruit - and it was a great success! I was really pleased with it and everybody seemed to like it.

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