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Edible histories: mince pies

Categories: Features, History of food

From meat-filled ‘coffyns’ to sweet Christmas treats, via the Whore of Babylon and the exhausted wife of Samuel Pepys, Mark Riddaway tells the festive story of the mince pie

It was Christmas day 1666 and Elisabeth, long-suffering wife of the childish, philandering but largely adoring civil servant and diarist Samuel Pepys, was having a bad start to the day. Sam, after a bit of a lie-in, had managed to get himself up and out to church, but his wife was left to malinger in bed “desirous of sleep”. The reason for her exhaustion? She had “sat up till four this morning seeing her mayds make mince-pies”. Apparently, watching your servants work can be quite the chore.

That afternoon, the Pepys family got to enjoy the fruits of Elisabeth’s gruelling night of sitting about watching other women labour. The pies were accompanied by “some good ribbs of beef roasted”, “plenty of good wine” and—as a direct result—a “heart full of true joy”. In fact, Pepys seems to have been pretty cheery every time a mince pie hoved into view, which was often. Every yuletide, there is at least a mention or two of these seasonal pastries in the pages of his diary. On 25th December 1662, with his wife feeling too unwell to oversee any baking, the diarist “sent for a mince-pie abroad”. In 1665 he ate some pies on Christmas Eve with his landlady and amused himself greatly at her son falling over and tearing his coat—typical Sam.

Also known as ‘shred pies’, mince pies had, by Pepys’s time, become a firmly established part of the country’s traditional Christmas fare. In many respects, these pastries were similar to their current incarnation—except for one pretty fundamental difference. The mince pies consumed by the Pepys household were packed full of spices, dried fruit, sugar and suet, just as you’d expect, but they were also stuffed to the gunnels with meat.

Deep rooted tradition
For most of its history the mince pie has been just that: a pie full of mince. It is a foodstuff deeply rooted in the traditions of English cookery, its ingredients and construction mirroring those of a dish known as ‘chewettes’ (a type of pie, not those 1980s fruity chews), recipes for which appeared in almost all of the very oldest English recipe books, dating from the 14th century onwards. These consisted of pastry ‘coffyns’ filled with chopped meat—sometimes pork, sometimes veal, sometimes chicken or capon—flavoured with spices such as ginger, cloves, pepper, mace and saffron, and enriched with dried fruits such as dates, currants and raisins. Some recipes included egg yolks, one involved the addition of “grene chese” and several were explicitly designed for Fridays and saints’ days, when the consumption of meat was forbidden—these swapped out the minced flesh for chopped fish. Chewettes often contained sugar, too, but in nothing like the quantities that are poured into and onto a mince pie today. In medieval England, sugar was scarce and expensive, its use similar to that of a spice, added sparingly to meat, fish and vegetable dishes in the way that palm sugar and jaggery are used in various Asian cuisines today.

Chewettes were not explicitly Christmas fare, and while mince pies would come to develop that association, until fairly recently their consumption was by no means limited to yuletide. Recipes rarely made mention of Christmas, and references to mince pie consumption popped up in other contexts. In Thomas Haywood’s play How a Man May Choose a Good Wife from a Bad (1602), “minc’d pies” are included within a comically long list of dishes over which grace is said at a feast that has nothing to do with Christmas, and Pepys himself went to a friend’s anniversary dinner in 1662, where the food included “eighteen mince pies in a dish, the number of the years that he hath been married”.

Slowly but surely, though, the link between pies and Christmas became increasingly unbreakable. It was certainly there by 1573, when Thomas Tusser’s poem Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie was published—the perfect Christmas fare included, he wrote: “Beef, mutton, and pork, shred pies of the best.” In 1698, François Maximilien Misson, a Frenchman who settled in England and wrote a book about his experiences here, considered the mince pie to be fundamental to his adopted country’s festivities: “Every family against Christmass makes a famous pye, which they call Christmass pye: It is a great nostrum, the composition of this pasty; it is a most learned mixture of neat’s tongues, chicken, eggs, sugar, raisins, lemon and orange peel, various kinds of spicery etc.”

Surreal sense of luxury
Some later sources suggested that this connection between mince pies and Christmas was drawn from the spicing being symbolic of the gifts of the Magi, but there’s absolutely no evidence to support the hypothesis. More likely is the simple and fairly universal rule that we tend to indulge in luxuries on special occasions, and mince pies had more than a hint of extravagance about them. For most people, the consumption of meat of any kind was pretty decadent, but the start of winter was a time when livestock, expensive to keep alive during those barren months, would be slaughtered. Mince pies offered a popular medium for serving up a little of this valuable protein in a celebratory form. Currants, spices and sugar were all costly imported goods, so to citizens of lesser means, their addition to a Christmas pie would imbue it with an almost surreal sense of luxury.

It is often stated in less carefully researched sources than this one that the mince pie’s association with Christmas led to Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan regime banning their consumption. While not actually true, this myth sheds light not just on how close that seasonal association had become but on how useful food can be as a tool of propaganda. As recent decades have proved, one of the best ways of rousing the nation’s ire is to exaggerate (or indeed falsify) the threat posed towards a favoured foodstuff; the quickest route to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but it’s also a shortcut to his spleen. Just as the EU at no point tried to ban prawn cocktail crisps or bendy bananas, or rename English chocolate ‘vegelate’, the government of Oliver Cromwell didn’t ban mince pies—but royalist polemicists and satirists understood the value in implying that they wanted to.

It is true that the Puritans strongly disapproved of religious festivities and that between 1642 and 1660 enacted various measures designed to make Christmas church services less celebratory and keep businesses and markets open on Christmas Day, but of mince pies not a single official mention was made. That didn’t stop many a royalist writer from caricaturing the republicans as swivel-eyed enemies of the great English pastry. In 1652, John Taylor condemned his “hot zealous brethren” who believed “that mince-pies were reliques of the whore of Babylon”. Another royalist poet, Robert Fletcher, wrote that Puritans saw mince pies as “Idolatrie in crust! Babylon’s whore / Raked from the grave, and baked by hanches, then / Serv’d up in coffins to unholy men”. In 1661, after the monarchy had been restored, Marchamont Nedham, a shameless propagandist-for-hire who had the good sense during the deadly, divisive days of rebellion, civil war and restoration to switch his allegiances every time the wind changed direction, accused his former employers, the parliamentarians, of having been hypocritical in their supposed hatred of Christmas foods: “The Houses may a Christmas keep, / The countrymen a Lent, / The citizens (like silly sheep) / Must fast, and be content. / All plums the prophets sons desie, / And spice-broths are too hot; / Treason’s in a December-pye, / And death within the pot.”

Puritan disapproval
Puritan disapproval certainly did nothing to stem the English appetite for mince pies, as those Pepys family Christmases attested. Just about every English cookbook from the 17th century onwards, including published works and those compiled by domestic cooks, contained at least one recipe for mincemeat. Most of these contained the basic quartet of meat, fruit, sugar and spice, with variations depending upon the economic status of the household. Parboiled “neat’s tongues”—dried cow’s tongues—were, suggested the cookbook of Sir Kenelm Digby (1669), “the best flesh for pies”. He paired these with beef, veal and suet, and threw in a veritable smorgasbord of flavourings: currants, raisins, apples, plums, lemon peel, orange peel, muscadine, nutmeg, mace, cloves, cinnamon, caraway seeds, rose water, sugar, ambergris and musk. John Nott, a journeyman cook who ran the kitchens of a long string of English aristocrats before sharing his hard-won culinary wisdom in The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary (1723), also suggested using neat’s tongue, but offered “buttock of beef” as an alternative, or indeed “whatsoever sort of meat you design to make them with”, so long as it was parboiled, pressed overnight, minced very fine and mixed with double the weight of suet.

As Britain’s empire grew, and its grotesque enslavement of Africans began to reap economic dividends, the character of these pies began to shift. In the 18th century, the Caribbean sugar plantations made cane sugar an increasingly cheap and plentiful presence in British markets, and the quantity used in mince pies grew accordingly. Elinor Fettiplace’s recipe from 1604 had suggested “equal parts of minced cooked mutton, beef suet, currants and raisins with ginger, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, orange rind, salt and a tiny quantity of sugar”, while Gervase Markham, writing in 1615, included just a sprinkling of sugar “on the top of the meat and upon the lid” after the pie had been cooked. Within a century or so, though, most pie recipes were measuring out sugar by the pound. As their sweetness increased, the meaty character of mince pies began to slowly recede.

Lenten self-denial
In Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery from 1747, the great cookery pioneer’s instructions on how “to make mince pies the best way” were based around a fruity, spicy preserve containing lots of suet, half a pound of sugar, half a pint of brandy and half a pint of sack (a Spanish fortified wine, such as sherry). When she mentioned the use of meat, it was as an optional extra: “If you chuse meat in your pies, parboil a neat’s tongue, peel it, and chop the meat as fine as possible, and mix with the rest; or two pounds of the inside of a surloin of beef boiled.” She also included a recipe for ‘Lent mince pie’, which in the name of Lenten self-denial included just a gill each of brandy and sack and swapped the meat out for six finely chopped hardboiled eggs.

Mrs Beeton’s Household Management from 1861 included a recipe called ‘mincemeat’ which contained a pound of “lean beef”, and a second called ‘excellent mincemeat’ which contained just fruit, sugar, suet and brandy—from the adjective alone we can imagine her personal preference. By the time Elizabeth David was compiling her era-defining cookbooks in the 20th century, her mincemeat recipes contained not a hint of flesh. Today, anyone finding actual mince in their mincemeat would be on the phone to Trading Standards in a flash.

The mince pies found at Borough Market today, while genuinely spectacular, would not be to the taste of Samuel Pepys, containing nothing more meaty than suet, and in some cases not even that. He would doubtless bypass this modern variant and instead head straight to the butchers of the Ginger Pig to source some pie-filling ingredients for his wife. Or more likely for her sleep-deprived “mayds”.