Sweet delight: A brief history of the mince pie

We eat them by the million as the festive season approaches but is there more to the mince pie than meats the eye?

On 25 December 1662, Samuel Pepys described his Christmas feast: "A mess of brave plum-porridge and a roasted pullet for dinner, and I sent for a mince pie abroad, my wife not being well to make any herself yet." Three-and-a-half centuries later, we are still sending abroad for these seasonal treats. It is hard to estimate the size of the market, but Marks & Spencer, which has had them on its shelves since September, expects to sell 40 million this year.

Not that everyone is delighted by the annual arrival of the mince pie. "I can't bear the bloody things," says food writer Tom Parker Bowles. "Along with turkey and pudding, they form an unholy Christmas trinity. If they're so great, why do we only have them once a year?"

Jeremy Lee, the universally admired cook at London's Blueprint Café, is more welcoming – though with provisos. "I love them," he says. "But the commercial varieties k are best left undiscussed. Generally unspeakable. They should be home-made with plenty of butter and suet or don't bother. Making your own mincemeat is a lovely chore."

For my part, I'm firmly in favour, though I try to restrain myself until Christmas Eve or thereabouts in order to preserve their treat status. The dollop of liquor-plumped fruits in a crisp buttery pastry crust is less stodgy than a Christmas pudding and its modest size is far more inviting. I prefer the ordinary size that allows a couple of bites but sometimes a mini pie pops into the mouth very nicely.

I have no hardened objection to a good shop-bought pie, though they tend to have flaws. M&S The Collection All Butter Mince Pies have a generous filling but are far too sweet. Heston Blumenthal Mince Pies from Waitrose have good puff pastry, though his innovation of pine sugar dusting is virtually undetectable when you've shaken it on. (Maybe this is for the best. In the packet, it smells like pine-scented toilet cleaner.) Despite rather thick pastry, Duchy Originals All Butter Organic Mince Pies go down well.

Yet even the best machine-made pies cannot compare with a well-filled hand-made one. It's a different animal. The pastry in a home-made mince pie should be crunchy with a tempting, mottled lid. Taking a couple on board is quite feasible but, as with cocktails, you should stop at two. Well, maybe three if they're sensational.

It should be added that with some home-made mince pies – thin, desiccated, stingily filled – there is no temptation to excess. These meagre offerings are usually presented with a wholly undeserved fanfare, "Do try one of Hermione's special mince pies..." After your first arid nibble you realise your mistake but by then you're committed. A half-eaten mince pie is impossible to ditch without causing offence. It is worth making a mental note to avoid that household at future Christmases.

Mrs Pepys's pies must have been good or Samuel would not have recorded them so assiduously. The long-suffering Elizabeth was back on the job by Christmas 1663. On 24 December, her husband wrote, "Thence straight home being very cold, but yet well, I thank God, and at home found my wife making mince pies."

In the 17th century, the filling contained real meat – quite a lot of it. Sadly, Pepys did not leave us a recipe though we can get a good idea from the Receipt Book written by an Oxfordshire aristocrat in 1609. Elinor Fettiplace's filling was made of 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.

Mutton aside, the ingredients sound close to modern mincemeat but the result, according to Hilary Spurling, who edited a modern edition of the Fettiplace cookbook, would be "a considerable shock to the palate" for anyone expecting today's mince pies. "They turned out to be in fact little savoury pies, rich and fruity but not at all sweet, and quite unsuited to tea time."

Spicy meat pies have been relished in England ever since the Crusaders brought spices back from the Middle East in the 12th century. I recently ate something of the kind at Yotam Ottolenghi's new London restaurant Nopi. His version of the Moroccan pastilla is a small pie of sugar-topped flaky pastry stuffed with spicy, minced rabbit meat. The result is tasty, unusual and exotic. Personally, I wouldn't mind it at teatime.

For the medieval Christmas, such pies would have been studded with expensive dried fruit transported the length

of Europe (our word "currant"²derives from "Corinth", pronounced "Korintos" in Greek). Since the shape of these pies was often rectangular, they were referred to as coffins (the word merely meant box until the 1500s when it gained a morbid specificity).

Contrary to popular myth, mince pies were never made illegal by Cromwell, though they were stigmatised by Puritans. A satire from 1656 called Christmas Day pokes fun at such priggish zealotry: ³Idolatrie in crust!²

After the Restoration, mince pies were usually circular. Some monsters weighed 20lb, though the ones eaten by Pepys were about the same size as today. They certainly seem to have involved the same amount of work. On 25 December 1666, the diarist wrote: "Lay pretty long in bed, and then rose, leaving my wife desirous of sleep, having sat up till four this morning seeing her mayds make mince pies."

The mince pie began to get sweeter in the 18th century when, in a bitter irony, cheap sugar arrived from slave plantations in the West Indies. In Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery (1747), a recipe "to make mince pies the best way" (self-praise has always been obligatory in the food world) utilises a modest lb of sugar, along with 50 apples, 4lb of dried fruit and 3lb of suet. Meat had become optional, though Glasse advises: "If you chuse meat in your pies, parboil a neat's tongue [ox tongue], peel it, and chop the meat as fine as possible, and mix with the rest; or two pounds of the inside of a sirloin of beef boiled." According to the website historicalfoods.com, "The pie which includes the boiled beef tastes very much like a mince-beef pie... perhaps not to everyone's taste."

By the 19th century, the mince pie had acquired its modern taste. Cooks used a lot of beef suet (hard, grated fat from around the kidneys) to bolster the flavour and juiciness of their pies, though many recipes dropped the meat entirely. The two greatest food writers of the era gave recipes for mincemeat alternatively with and without meat. In Household Management (1861), Isabella Beeton seems to be heading in the vegetarian direction. A recipe called "excellent mincemeat" is meat-free, while one merely called "mincemeat" includes 1 lb of raw minced beef. In Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845), Eliza Acton maintained the traditional style in her "Author's Receipt" for mincemeat, which contained 1lb of minced ox tongue along with fruit, sugar, spices and brandy. A second version called "superlative mincemeat" is meat-free with lemons, apples and dried fruit until you get to the last line when she adds, "We think that the weight of one lemon in meat improves this mixture."

The two most important British food writers of the 20th century held diverse views concerning meat in mincemeat. Despite being obsessed with culinary history, Elizabeth David included no meat in her recipe (unless you count ¾lb of beef suet), but Jane Grigson advocates Mrs Beeton's meaty recipe in her 1974 classic English Food: "I have noticed that when I make this mincemeat for Christmas, the mince pies disappear more quickly than usual."

This was not the reaction in Jeremy Lee's family when his mother included meat in her mincemeat one year. "We all agreed they were somewhat odd and struck a curious chord. They never featured again. Meat and fruit do not always make the best companions."

So which is best, mincemeat as misnomer or minced-meat mincemeat? There was only one way to find out. I headed for the kitchen or, rather, my wife did. Displaying the same selfless generosity as Mrs Pepys, she agreed to make a meaty mince pie. Vigorously rejecting my suggestion of the tripe-and-suet mincemeat in Dan Lepard's new book Short & Sweet ("sounds odd... but it does taste good"), she embarked on an 1851 recipe found on the BBC's Victorian Christmas website involving 1lb of chopped sirloin along with a substantial quantity of breadcrumbs.

Her enthusiasm waned radically at the midpoint. "This was a bad mistake," she groaned. Though the website maintains that the mince pies take "one hour", it turned out that the mincemeat had first to be heated "over a very low heat for 3-5 hours stirring occasionally". (Cooked mincemeat keeps far longer than uncooked.) The result was gleaming and fruity with good depth of flavour but rather stodgy due to the breadcrumbs. I broke the bad news to the weary cook: "This is heading towards Christmas pud."

A few days later, my wife tackled Mrs Beeton's esteemed recipe, though with a notable diminution in enthusiasm. "I'm completely fed up of the bloody things," she said, much in the manner of Tom Parker Bowles. Mrs Beeton's technique follows the orthodox method of mixing the raw ingredients, which are then bottled and left to mature for a couple of weeks. Jane Grigson reassuringly points out, "The steak is perfectly preserved by the sugar and brandy."

Encased in a golden crust, the result was distinguished by a fine depth of flavour with quite a bit of savouriness on the palate. Not too sweet, it was a grown-up mince pie. In my view, an occasional fragment of meat added to the interest. "A great success," I said encouragingly.

"Well, at least you can tell it's not a shop-bought pie," replied my wife.

"We'll have Mrs Beeton's mince pies next time."

"There isn't going to be a next time."

Mrs Beeton's Mincemeat

This adaptation halves the quantities of the original and excludes the raisins (very expensive this year) but is still enough for around 40 average-sized pies. If you want to make meat-free mince pies, exclude the steak and add a few more currants and candied peel.

375g/12oz currants
200g/7oz minced rump steak
375g/12oz Atora beef suet
250g/8oz dark muscovado sugar
45g/2oz candied peel
grated nutmeg
375g/12oz peeled, grated apple
Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of lemon
75ml/3fl oz brandy

Mix all ingredients up to the apple in a large bowl. Then add the apple, lemon zest and lemon juice and mix again. Add the brandy and give it a really good stir so it coats everything. Fill jars as full as possible, pressing down to exclude air. Cover and leave to mature, preferably at least two weeks, before encasing in shortcrust pastry to make mince pies.

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Ricky Gervais at a screening of 'Muppets Most Wanted' in London last month
tvRicky Gervais on the return of 'Derek' – and why he still ignores his critics
Sport
Luis Suarez of Liverpool celebrates his goal
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Homer meets Lego Marge in the 25th anniversary episode of The Simpsons, set to air on 4 May
tv
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatreReview: Of Mice and Men, Longacre Theatre
Life & Style
Infant child breast-feeding with eyes closed
healthTo stop mummy having any more babies, according to scientists
News
news
Life & Style
Going down: Google's ambition to build an elevator into space isn't likely to be fulfilled any time soon
techTechnology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Arts & Entertainment
film
News
David Cameron sings a hymn during the enthronement service of The Most Rev Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury, at Canterbury Cathedral last year
news
Life & Style
From long to Jong: Guy Pewsey gets the North Korean leader's look
fashionThe Independent heads to an Ealing hairdressers to try out the North Korean dictator's trademark do
Extras
indybest10 best smartphones
Arts & Entertainment
tvCreator Vince Gilligan sheds light on alternate endings
Life & Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 63rd anniversary of the Peak District National Park
tech
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

    Sports coaching volunteer jobs

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Kaya Responsible Travel offer a variety of sp...

    Turtle Nesting and Coral Reef Conservation in Borneo

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Volunteer with Kaya in Borneo and work on a p...

    Elephant research project in Namibia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: If you have a passion for elephants and want ...

    Day In a Page

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal