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.

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