Food and the way it evolves within a culture is often influenced by the economic and social circumstances of the day, as well as the availability (or lack thereof) of ingredients. In this ongoing series of articles, we’re taking a look at some of our own cultural dishes, both to get a better understanding of ourselves, and to see how we have shared influences with other cultures in the process. Today, we’re going to be taking a look at a classic Christmas Mince Pies.
The origins of the Mince Pie can be traced back to the 13 Century, when the Crusaders returned to Europe with knowledge of Middle Eastern cooking- particularly, recipes that combined meat, fruit, and a variety of spices and flavourings. Like many dishes closely tied to our cultural heritage, a lot of history surrounds the pie following it’s conception. It was known under various names early on, including Mutton Pie, Shrid Pie, and during the 1600s, the Christmas Pie.
One such early recipe, credited to one Gervase Markham, calls for “a leg of mutton, of which the best flesh from the bone will be cut”, which will be minced and mixed with Mutton Suet, Pepper, Salt, Cloves, Mace, Currants, Raisins, Prunes, Dates and Orange Peel. There is no concrete “original” recipe however, and a number of variants on the dish have appeared over time, including ones that call for Veal, Goose, or Neat’s Tongue as the meat, and fruits and spices that run the gamut from Blood Raisins, Apples, Lemon, Brown Sugar, and sometimes even the addition of Brandy.
Mince Pies and Catholicism
As befitting the name Christmas Pie, an association with Catholicism did eventually arise around the treat, along with a version of the recipe which called for exactly 13 ingredients total- each one signifying Christ and his Twelve Apostles. This became a problem during the English Civil war, where it became an unfortunate target of the Puritans and was banned from consumption due to the association. However, this did little to diminish the popularity of the pie in the long run, and it continued to evolve and change and time marched onwards, becoming smaller and sweeter. By the time of the Victorian Era, it had begun to resemble the treat as we know it today, with a size comparable to a Cupcake and a filling that was oftentimes prepared months beforehand. It’s around this time when the inclusion of actual meat in the Mince Pie began to fall by the wayside (something a lot of writers in the 20th Century both noticed and bemoaned), although Suet is still used across all Mince Pie recipes to this very day.