In just a few weeks, children around the country will no doubt be following the age-old tradition of putting out a treat for Father Christmas before they go to bed. And many of them will probably be leaving a glass of sherry and a mince pie.
The mince pie is a holiday favourite steeped in tradition, and more than 300 million will be eaten this Christmas. Many believe that you should eat one mince pie every day for the twelve days of Christmas in order to guarantee happiness and good luck in the coming year.
When you eat your daily mince pie, you are following in the footsteps of Brits for centuries before. The dish is believed to have its origins with the knights when they returned from the Crusades. They brought with them dried fruits and spices from the Middle East. These were combined with suet and meat. That’s right, the earliest forms of mincemeat did indeed contain meat, often mutton.
The pie was so popular that King Henry V requested one, then called a Christmas pie, at his coronation in 1413.
During the Civil War, the mince pie faced controversy. The Puritans disapproved of Christmas celebrations and its many foods and festivities, viewing them as symbols of Catholic idolatry. Some historians claim that Cromwell banned Christmas and its many trappings but evidence seems to be sparse. It is more likely that, while not made illegal, their consumption was frowned upon.
Fortunately, the Puritans did not reign for long. By the 1660s, mince pies were popular once again. Diarist Samuel Pepys wrote each year about his beloved pies. One year, his wife sat up until 4am Christmas morning to ensure that she had made enough pies. In 1662, Mrs Pepys was too ill to make any but the following year he wrote that he “thank God, at home found my wife making mince pies.”
By Victoria’s reign, the pies had become smaller, more reminiscent of those we enjoy today. Some cooks were also starting to phase meat out of their recipes. In Mrs/ Beeton’s 1861 cookbook, only one of many recipes for mincemeat that she shared contained actual meat. The others were all dried fruit, suet, and spices.
The following recipe is for a modern mincemeat with no mutton or beef tongue in sight. You can leave out the alcohol but it adds an extra dimension to the flavour.
4oz / 110g suet
4oz / 110g dried crystallized peel
1 large apple
1lb / 450g dried fruit
4oz / 110g brown sugar
1 tsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
4 tbs brandy or whisky. If you choose to omit the alcohol, use 4 tbs orange juice.
Chop the peel and grate the apple. Mix with the suet, dried fruit, sugar, spices, and lemon zest. Taste and add more spices, if necessary, to suit your taste. Stir in the brandy.
Put the mixture into jars and seal until ready to use. You can make this immediately before use, but making three to four weeks in advance gives the flavours time to meld.