One of my favorite memories of Christmases of my youth, in Birmingham, England, is of the exquisite baked edibles that are mince pies. Either home baked, with melt in your mouth short crust pastry, using jarred mincemeat, sometimes from the local bakery (And every neighborhood had a local bakery once upon a magical time- typically next to the traditional butchers and greengrocers) or more typically in a box of six.
They are individually sized and typically a blend of raisins, currants, cherries, apricots, candied peels, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves walnuts, almonds and, occasionally suet. Suet is the fat around the kidneys of a cow, and is used to add flavor, texture and body to a great variety of traditional English recipes and puddings, including Spotted Dick, Steak and Kidney, and the ever popular and personal favorite, Treacle. But that is another story…Rum or brandy is also conventionally added to the scrumptious blend of fruits or seasoning.
Mince pies are consumed in Britain in the millions each year over the holidays, and one is traditionally left for Father Christmas on the night of December 24th, oft times with a wee measure of the strong stuff. This is the only time of the year you can buy them, which adds to their excitement. And after the holidays I always lament eating the very last one, maybe heated a little and served with a dollop of clotted cream.
But, as the name aptly suggests meat was once the core to these pies.
Over 500 years ago it was discovered in Britain something they had known in the East for centuries. They learnt that sugars and alcohol were a splendid, and tasty, method of preserving meat. Once prepared with fruits, brandy and seasoning it could last for several months. Up until then salting, drying or smoking, were the only options, so this quickly became a common alternative. A variety of meats were prepared this way, and I even heard a record of whale meat, but the most popular was beef or mutton.
The pie seemed to be the perfect vessel to serve this newfangled concoction- and thusly the mince pie was born. The first known recipes for a mincemeat was a pastry called chewette, apparently made from liver and boiled eggs along with the dried fruits and sweet ingredients. Liver and other offal were common place for the working class of the day, and this would have surely been a flavorsome technique of preserving and serving it.
King Henry V of England famously served a mincemeat pie at his coronation in 1413. But it was King Henry VIII who favored mincemeat so much that he began to eat it as his main component of his Christmas feast. And as often with the royals…they set the trends, so every fashionable family also began to serving the pies. And so the tradition of eating them during the Christmas season began.
There was a time, when Oliver Cromwell, the self-proclaimed Lord Protector of England from 1649 until 1658 that Christmas was banned in 1657, and along with it all things Christmas related, included the beloved pie. However, that was short lived and in 1660 when King Charles II took over.
Also during the 17th century, the meat products were oft times replaced with the suet, but the association with the holiday season continued, and has done to this very day.
These days the resurgent of more traditional pies are showing up in gastropubs across the U.K., and finding them made with suet is also increasingly possible- and if you get the chance I urge you to try one, as they are incredibly flavorful and decadent.
So there you have it, in a nut- or should I say pie- shell. So this holiday when you nibble on that first mince pie maybe you will consider the glorious history behind it.
Paul Gifford is an English born full time writer who has called California home for many years. He writes under the name P.S. Gifford. He has had several dozen stories published in print and on-line magazine, been included in anthologies and has several collections of his works available at all good on-line book sellers.