Since when was there a difference?
Mincemeat is something that seems to confuse anybody who didn’t grow up in Britain. “So, it’s a sweet dessert but it’s made of meat?” they wonder. And often when they’re told that “mincemeat” is not actually made of meat, neither they nor the person answering the questions seem entirely sure about why it’s called meat at all.
The fact is that the time when a mince pie was made of, well, mince seems so long ago that it doesn’t really register with us as being a part of it. In reality, though, mincemeat pies have been made of actual meat throughout most of their history and it’s really only very recently that “mincemeat” and “minced meat” have come to mean two very separate things. To celebrate the evolution of the mince pie this week’s Christmas dish is a two course meal: a historical meat based mince pie for a main course and a more modern sweet mince pie for dessert.
For much of history, of course, there was no such thing as “dessert” because there wasn’t really a savoury course and a sweet course. As I’ve mentioned here before, through most of history the wealthy would put all their most expensive ingredients together and lay all the food out on the table at once. This is where the original mincemeat pies would have been used. Ingredients like sugar, spice or even dried fruit that wasn’t native to this country would have been expensive and combining them all together would have been the perfect way of showing your wealth on celebratory and holiday occasions. Back in mediaeval and early modern times Christmas was not the year’s single most important holiday as it is now, so mincemeat pies were not specifically associated with that day, but were definitely a special occasion food. Henry VIII ate them at his coronation.
One of the earliest written mince pie recipes comes from the reign of Henry’s daughter Elizabeth and appears in a book with the unwieldy, if descriptive, title of A Book of Cookrye Very Necessary for All Such Delight Therein. There is no author, as such, for this work. It is simply credited as “Gathered by A.W.” At this time recipe books were only written for the cooks in rich and important households, so the sort of things that A Book of Cookrye suggests making are a pretty good indication of what the upper echelons of society were eating.
When it comes to pies there are some very brief and to the point recipes, for example: “For Pyes of Mutton or Beefe. Shred your meat and Suet togither fine, season it with cloves, mace, Pepper, and same Saffron, great Raisins, Corance and prunes, and so put it into your Pyes” (erratic spelling and punctuation from the original text). From this 16th century cooks were supposed to be able to make a mincemeat pie fit for a king. It’s obvious, then, that this is a basic guide for cooks who already know just what they’re doing.
The first thing that is obvious about this recipe is that it contains very little advice on the pastry itself, you just get a list of ingredients and the advice “put it into your Pyes”. In the 16th century a lot of cookware and crockery was essentially edible. People ate off plates made of bread and when they wanted to bake meat they would do it in a pastry “Coffyn”, essentially part pie, part casserole dish. The pastry wasn’t necessarily intended for eating and often the wealthy people would eat the filling and the pastry crust would go to the servants or less affluent folks. The closest equivalent modern style pastry would be the sort of warm lard dough and hand raised pastry crust that I made last month when I was doing a pork pie.
I began, then, as I had with that recipe, making a warm dough from flour, milk, water and lard and then shaping it around an impromptu pie dolly made from a jar. As I allowed my pastry to set, I turned to the pie filling. Mincing meat traditionally was a way of ensuring that you used up all the leftovers without waste. On Sunday night we had a big joint of roast beef, so I decided to use the leftover parts to make my mincemeat pie. We don’t have a mincer in the house, but the Tudor recipe simply says to “shred” the meat. With no more details than that I didn’t know quite how fine to slice it, but went with relatively small chunks and moved on to the other ingredients.
There are no amounts or measures in the recipe, so I just had to put in what looks about right, which, to be honest, worked OK. While a modern mince pie may use quite a variety of dried fruit and spices, this recipe sticks to prunes, raisins and currents with a little pepper, cloves, saffron and mace. Many of these are ingredients that would have come into Britain from the Mediterranean, the Arabic world and the Middle-East and probably were flavours that were first introduced after the crusades (currants, for example, spelt “corance” in the recipe, are “raisins of Corinth”, the Greek city). Although this combination of meat and dried fruit, savoury and sweet, may seem strange or unappetising to us today, a lot of similar combinations continue to exist in these countries.
Both saffron and mace were far more popular spices during the 16th century than they are now (at least amongst people who could afford them). The latter is part of the nutmeg plant. It is the covering of the nutmeg seed, and was used to provide the flavour that we would today use the nutmeg seed itself for.
In the case of saffron, it remains a hugely expensive spice as it did four hundred years ago. The thing that has changed is that the rest of the mince pie has become more affordable. Also native to Greece, saffron is the dried stigma of the saffron crocus flower and will always be expensive to produce. It is said to be one of the few foodstuffs that is genuinely worth its weight in gold. On purchasing 0.4g of it, a tiny sachet in a normal size spice jar, for £4.50, the woman working on the supermarket check-out suggested someone must have made off with the rest. She could not believe that so little food could cost so much, which was always the point of having it in the mince pie in the first place.
Gradually, as time went on and more and more people could afford the other ingredients, the meat element was padded out with our final ingredient: suet – shredded meat fat instead of shredded meat itself. In the 18th century, when dinner started to split into separate courses, recipe books still carried mincemeat pies made with meat, but suet alone could be substituted for another, cheaper method.
With that added to my mincemeat mix, I finished off my pie by decorating it with pastry leaves. Although the pastry wasn’t really designed for eating, it was important that decorative pies formed a centrepiece of the feast table so Tudor cooks would have spent a long time created increasingly elaborate decorations for their feast pies.
Tasting the pie was slightly strange, but not wholly unpleasant. It is definitely not a flavour combination that we use much in this country any more and that made the combination of beef, prunes, raisins and nutmeg a little odd. I did quite like it, but then again it’s not something that I would necessarily want to have every day.
On to the sweet pie for dessert, then, and a recipe that, while it may not be over 400 years old, still has a bit of history to it. By the Victorian period Christmas had come to feature almost as prominently in the calendar as it does now and many of our modern Christmas traditions, from trees to cards, were established. It was the Victorians that finally settled on the mincemeat that goes in pies being a different thing from meat that was minced, a distinction that only came into place around 1850. By 1861 and Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Isabella Beeton included recipes for both “mincemeat” and “excellent mincemeat”. These recipes combine the suet with apples, candied peel, currants, raisins, sugar, nutmeg and a healthy amount of brandy. One even still has the option for using beef.
My family recipe for mincemeat has come down to me via my mum from her great-grandmother, meaning that it’s far closer in time to Mrs. Beeton’s recipe than it is to the sort that you get sometimes today. Over the 20th century people have become increasingly squeamish about chunks of meat fat in their sweet pies and the beef suet element has been gradually phased out in modern mince pies in favour of vegetable suet or no suet at all. My great-great-grandmother, however, has meat suet aplenty, accompanied with apple, raisins, currants, sultanas, candied peel, glace cherries, brown sugar, lemon zest, nutmeg, mixed spice and a healthy glug of brandy.
Properly mincemeat needs time to soak in all that brandy and for the flavours to mature. In Mrs. Beeton she suggests preparing your mincemeat for Christmas Day at the beginning of December. In the past, however, “Stir-up Sunday”, the date on which you should prepare your Christmas cakes, puddings and mincemeat in order for them to be ready for Christmas, has always been the last week before Advent. With Advent Sunday falling on December 1st this year, Stir-up Sunday was on November 24th. Of course if you want to enjoy your mince pies throughout December then you really need to do the mincemeat even earlier in November. In reality, then, I actually prepared the mincemeat for my sweet pies last month and only came to putting it in pies today.
Over the last few hundred years mince pies have become smaller and smaller. Rather than the single, large pie of the 16th century, we now prefer them a little less heavy. Unlike the heavy lardy pastry for my main course pie, the pastry for these pies is sweeter and more delicate just like the filling. So I made a short, crumbly pastry with lots of butter and a little sugar and filled these little pastry cases with the sweet mincemeat.
As this is a family recipe it’s one that I’ve made and eaten for many Christmases in the past, so I was fairly confident that they would turn out well and, sure enough, these pies were thoroughly enjoyable. While I may be happy not to have a mince pie made of actual mince, equally it is not quite right to taste one with no legacy of this whatsoever. At that point it’s essentially just a fruit pie.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: I’ve had a variety of meaty mince pies over the years (since before I even met Colonel Mustard!), some savoury, some sweet. Generally, I prefer the sweet (lamb mince is especially good). Our ‘main’ mince pie was alright, but the cubed beef was a little dry; I think the suet melted into the pastry. I suspect when A Book of Cookrye says to shred the beef it means something more similar to pulled pork. The pastry was heavy but edible; if I’d been a servant in the household of Lord Mustard I’d have eaten it happily.
The sweet pie was everything I expect a modern mince pie to be. Fruity, spicy, hearty, and covered in alcoholic dairy fat 🙂