Mince pies have been consumed in Britain for centuries and can be traced back to before the 13th century when returning European crusaders brought back Middle Eastern recipes containing meats, fruits and spices.
Back then, the pie was full of shredded meat, dried fruits & alcohol, and eaten throughout the year, particularly during the long, bleak winter months.
Over the years the Mince pie has been known as: Shred pie (made from shredded suet and meat), Mutton Pie, Christmas pye, and Crib cake which alluded to baby Jesus in his crib.
The early pies were larger and usually oblong in shape, and filled with meat ranging from rabbit to mutton, with many 16th century recipes calling for “neat’s” (Bovine) or beef tongue.
In the Forme of Cury of 1390 (a collection of medieval English recipes from the 14th century), under the name “tartes of flesh,” cooks were instructed to grind up pork, cheese and hard-boiled eggs before mixing them with spices, saffron, and sugar.
Historian Katherine Clements notes.
“The ominously named “tarts of flesh” were a decadent creation, with the recipe calling for boiled pork, stewed bird and rabbit, eggs, cheese, sugar, saffron, salt and other spices all piled into a pie shell.”
They were certainly not meant as ‘finger food,’ as this recipe from Gervase Markham’s The English Huswife published in 1615 shows:
“Take a Legge of Mutton, and cut the best of the flesh from the bone, and parboyl it well then put to it three pound of the best Mutton suet & shred it very small; then spread it abroad, and fashion it with Salt Cloves and Mace: then put in good store of Currants, great Raisins and Prunes clean washed and picked a few Dates sliced, and some Orenge-pils sliced; then being all well mixt together, put it into a coffin, or into divers coffins, and so bake them and when they are served up, open the lids and strow store of Sugar on the top of the meat and upon the lid. And in this sort you may also bake Beef or Veal, onely the Beef would not be parboyld, and the Veal will ask a double quantity of Suet.”
These pies were big, sometimes weighing as much as 220lb (100kg) and designed to feed many diners. The pie crust or ‘coffin’ would serve as a convenient mini pot to cook or house the pre-boiled meat and fruit fillings. When served, the top would be cut open and the diners would spoon out the meat, the crust would be discarded once the contents of the pie was eaten.
By the 17th century mince pies had become interlaced with the Christmas festivities and during the twelve days of Christmas, wealthy rulers and the rich often put on grand feasts exhibiting expensive dishes of meat and fruit, like the mince pie— a perfect way to show off one’s status.
The Puritans in Oliver Cromwell’s England, condemned the celebrations as a Popeish indulgence, and sought to ban the festive celebrations, including the consumption of mince pies and Christmas pudding in an effort to tackle gluttony.
Rumours circulated that these festive celebrations had been banned, but this was proven to be nothing more than an urban legend and the Mince pie along with the Christmas pudding remained.
By the end of the 17th century the pies had shrunk in size, but not in popularity. Cultural icon Samuel Pepys’s certainly expected his mince pies at Christmas, and when his wife was too poorly one year to make them, he promptly had them delivered.
In his diary, on 25 December 1662, he writes:
“I walked home again with great pleasure, and there dined by my wife’s bed-side with great content, having 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.”
As Great Britain entered the Victorian age, the meat of mincemeat was becoming more of an afterthought, although the use of suet remained. Some cooks did continue to include meat in their dishes, particularly roast beef which had become the popular meat of choice.
But as sugar became cheaper and widely available due to the rise of sugarcane plantations in the West Indies, sweet mince pies grew more common. By the late Victorian era mince pies were firmly in the sugary camp and no Christmas was complete without them.
Suzanne, the French historian of English cookery, said of the mince pie:
“This little pie is especially esteemed and popular in England. This, with the legendary Plum pudding, presides as a master at the gargantuan love-feast of Christmas. Its absence from a Christmas dinner would be looked upon as a breach of the traditional rules and customs.”
And with a staggering 10,000 plus mince pies eaten per minute in Britain over the festive season, this is one tradition that is here to stay.
Make Mince Pies the Victorian way, with this recipe from English Heritage…