Monday, 6 December 2010

An Ode To Pie

We're a few days into December, so I feel it now only right and proper to talk about one of my great Christmas loves: The Mince Pie. Most countries have their own pastry or sweet treat that is traditionally served at this time of year, but the Mince Pie is peculiarly British, and as my (Canadian) boyfriend reminds me, something of an oddity which requires delicate elaboration. If your love of Mince Pies is as well established as mine, then grab yourself a cup of tea and another Mince Pie (If you take two, I won't say anything). For the uninitiated,  let me be your guide...

Festive Still Life, a joint effort between Laura & André.
The precise origin of the Mince Pie is one of those quirks of circumstance now lost to time, but the modern version bears only a little resemblance to its forbears. The similarities are, 1. Pastry 2. Spices and fruit. For example, Gervase Markham's 1615 recipe from The English Huswife calls for parboiled "legge of Mutton", or failing that, "you may also bake Beef or Veal." Added to the meat was also shredded suet, currants, dates, raisins and prunes, orange peel and sugar, which would then be baked in a pastry case. 

How they came to be associated with Christmas has long been debated, but never definitively answered. They were sometimes called Christmas Pies, and for a time, during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, outlawed along with other Catholic and Pagan symbols of celebration. Oddly enough, eating a Mince Pie on Christmas Day is still illegal (according to The Law Commission and this BBC article from 2006), although it would take Ebeneezer Scrooge in a police officer's uniform to enforce the rule!

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Mince Pie recipes still included meat that was added to a mixture of dried fruits, orange or lemon peel, sugar and sweet spices like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace. Somewhere along the way the size of the pies shrunk from large to the small, individual pies we bake today, and more importantly, the meat was removed from proceedings altogether. 

Most modern recipes (such as Delia Smith's version here) also now include alcohol of some kind, but still have the same spices, fruits and suet. (For a vegetarian version by the ever-decadent Nigella Lawson, see here). Nowadays, the mincemeat (as it is still called despite containing no meat at all) is usually made ahead of time, simmered on a stove and then stored and left to mature before being spooned out into individual pastry cases which are then baked. You can also buy ready prepared jars of mincemeat, and I happened upon a very spirited debate in Marks & Spencer the other day between two elderly ladies who had themselves stumbled across jars of chocolate mincemeat for sale. The thought of it genuinely horrified them, and I can't say I was much taken by the idea of it either.

I love Mince Pies and often say that I could eat them all year round, but perhaps one of their joys is that they're not made or sold all year. I have no definitive recipe myself; my excuse is that my pastry making skills border on the abysmal, and I'm more than happy to stuff myself with the lovely ones that my Mum bakes for as long as she keeps on churning them out of the oven. Her pastry is light as a feather and she always serves them with a sprinkle of icing sugar. It's an even more barefaced and shameless admission when I also admit to buying and eating shop-bought pies. I don't really enjoy Christmas Pudding or cake the way some people do, but there are not many mince pies I won't eat. Besides, I've always been told that it's rude to refuse one...


  1. Thanks for the history lesson...on something I just don't like ;-) I might have them to be polite but would never go out and buy them, no, I'm simply not a fan... Have a great week, I hope the weather isn't too hard on you. Love from London x

  2. Hahahaha! They're not for everyone, I know. The mincemeat mixture is pretty rich. What would be your Christmassy treat if choice then? :)

    Weather report: no fresh snow in a few days now, but very, very icy. -10 this morning when I left the house. I have it on good authority that this can be considered cold :)

    Have a lovely week! x

  3. I LOVE mince pie and rarely find anyone else who does, so I haven't had it in years. My Great-Grandmother always made mince pie for Christmas and I've often wondered about her recipe. (Did she use suet?) I would gladly be cuffed for indulging on Christmas Day! Have a slice for me, Laura.

  4. I cannot say I fancy mince pies, but the history of them is fascinating. Should I be offered one this holiday season, I might even be inclined to give one a try.

  5. Catherine- I'm guessing your grandmother would have used suet. It's in every traditional recipe, so chances are she did. I'll be sure to have a few pies for you!

    Ingrid - Mince Pies are rich, but I love them. Then again, I've grown up with them so I would say that!