Looking to bring something a little out of the ordinary to the Christmas table this year? Mary-Anne Boermans sought inspiration from some traditional recipes in our historical recipe manuscripts. Here’s her take on the original mince pies:
Mince Pies have been a staple of the festive season for centuries and have survived to this day, although in a very heavily edited form compared to yesteryear.
They are thought to date back as far as the 13th century, when returning crusading knights brought with them the spiced, fruited and aromatic pies of the Middle East. They have had a chequered history, in part due to, over the years, being imbued with apparent symbolism. The Victorian antiquary John Timbs suggested that the spices representing the gifts of the Magi and in the 17th century, John Selden inferring from the mention of pastry ‘coffins’ in recipes that their shape was reminiscent of the crib of the infant Jesus. The Puritans famously had no truck with mince pies, the symbolism attached to them being deemed Popish:
“All plums the prophet’s sons desie,
And spice-broths are too hot;
Treason’s in a December-pie,
And death within the pot.”
‘A short history of the English rebellion’ (1661) by Marchamont Nedham. p9.
Mince pies have rejoiced in a number of different names over the centuries including chewets, shred pies, minched pies, shrid pies, and Christmas pies, even though they were consumed throughout the year. They were remarkably similar to today’s pies with one important exception: traditional mince pies were savoury.
It is an important distinction to remember, for if we think of them as today’s variety of mince pies with meat added, it makes them sound distinctly unpalatable. Imagine instead a spicy, savoury pie, dotted with sharp currants and tangy citrus and they become altogether much more appetising. With only a little adjustment to modern tastes, chiefly in the reduction of the quantity of suet used, these treats from the Middle Ages can be part of our festive tables again.
In the 18th century, Hannah Glasse included suet-less and sugar-free recipes for mincemeat for Lent and in the 17th century, court cook Robert May offered not only mince pies of veal, turkey, capon and tongue, but also ‘chewets’ of oysters, salmon and sturgeon to enjoy on fasting days.
Diving into the Wellcome recipe manuscripts reveals numerous mincemeat recipes which are surprisingly varied in their key ingredients, revealing the potential to find a mincemeat recipe to suit every taste.
Elizabeth Jacob’s book contains the greatest variety of mincemeat recipes. In addition to the peel, spices, suet and dried fruit, she and her descendents have recorded recipes utilising neat’s tongue, beef tongue, raw beef, raw veal and hard-boiled eggs. Frances Springatt’s mincemeat recipes include the line ‘meat or potatoes’ in the ingredients list, which seems at the very least, a rather unusual substitution option. Several ladies favour full-bodied meats such as mutton or ox heart, and even one for tripe mince pies.
If you’re looking for something a little out of the ordinary this festive season, a dip into the savoury mince pies of yore might be just what your tastebuds have been waiting for:
Elizabeth Jacob’s Mincemeat recipe
225g cooked ox tongue, chopped fine
112g raisins chopped
1tsp fresh grated nutmeg
1tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground mace
10g candied citron peel, chopped fine
10g candied orange peel, chopped fine
10g candied lemon or grapefruit peel
3 sharp eating apples, peeled, cored and chopped fine
Mix all the ingredients together and fill your pies.