Some 400 million mince pies are consumed in the UK every year. A large number of them are left at the foot of chimneys around the world in anticipation of a visit from Santa Claus, but with a record 46 mince pies eaten in ten minutes by a participant in Britain’s first mince pie eating challenge at Wookey Hole, the man in red has some stiff competition.
Like shortening days, a chill in the air, and the smell of pine needles, the mince pie is a sure sign that Christmas is coming [leave aside for now the fact that in some shops this happens in August]. But from where does this national obsession with mince pies arise? An article in the December 1733 issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine lauded the crust of the ‘Christmas Pye’ as symbolic of the ‘martial genius of our nation… the rules of military architecture are observed, and each of them would serve for the model of a fortification.’ But the real meaning of the Christmas Pye was not military but religious, and zealous opposition was noted among ‘the Quakers, who distinguish their Feasts by an heretical sort of pudding… and inveigh against Christmas Pie as an Invention of the Scarlet Whore of Babylon, an Hodge-Podge of Superstition, Popery, the Devil and all his Works.’ By now perhaps, that innocent looking Christmas treat is beginning to look a lot more sinister.
The origin of the mince pies can be traced back to the thirteenth century, when those returning from Crusade brought with them produce and recipes containing meats, fruit and spices. The medieval mince pie contained minced meat and suet, flavoured, preserved, and sweetened with honey, dried fruit, and spices such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. A fourteenth century English recipe for ‘Tartes of flessh’ instructed the cook to:
take pork ysode and grynde it smale. Take harde eyren isode & ygrounde, and do þerto with chese ygrounde. Take gode powdours and hool spices, sugur, & safroun and salt, & do þerto. Make a coffyn as tofore sayde & do þis þerinne, & plaunt it with smale briddes istyued & connynges, & hewe hem to smale gobettes, & bake it as tofore, & serue it forth.
Constance B Hieatt and Sharon Butler. Curye on Inglish: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth-Century (Including the Forme of Cury), (New York: for The Early English Text Society by the Oxford University Press, 1985)
The baked pies were usually rectangular in shape, sometimes referred to as ‘coffin’, and decorated with a star, or with a figure of the infant Christ in a nod to the nativity. To serve mince pies was a sign of affluence; mince pies were part of the coronation celebrations for King Henry V in April 1413 and, we are told, consumed with enthusiasm by Henry VIII.
The mince pie itself had changed little by the sixteenth century. Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife included a recipe for a mince pie of substantial proportion, made from ‘Legge of Mutton’ parboiled, and combined with ‘three pound of the best Mutton suet’, salt cloves and mace, currants, raisins and prunes, dates and orange peel, then ‘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.’ The addition of sugar reflected its wider availability in this period, and in some respects the mince pie embodied the growing link between sugar, spice, and western European affluence.
However the mince pie, and the celebration of Christmas itself, were soon to become controversial. Philip Stubbes, in The Anatomie of Abuses, warned of the dangers of Christmas celebrations, observing that ‘more mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides’ with masking and mumming, dicing and carding, eating and drinking, banqueting and feasting ‘to the great dishonour of God and impoverishing of the realm.’ With the parliamentary assault on Christmas celebrations in 1646 and 1647, a Royalist author lamented in the ballad The World is Turned Upside Down, ‘Christmas was killed at Naseby fight.’
The satire The Arraignment, Conviction and Imprisoning of Christmas (January 1646), which purported to have been printed by ‘Simon Minced-Pie for Cicely Plum Pottage’ described a discussion between a London town crier and a Royalist gentlewoman over the whereabouts of Father Christmas, now ‘constrained to remain in the Popish quarters’. The crier was not afraid to mince [sorry!] his words, reminding the reader of what was missing from December without Christmas: ‘in every house roast Beefe and Mutton, Pies and Plumporrige, and all manner of delicates.’
But Christmas festivities, including the mince pie, were not easily suppressed, with ongoing attempts made to clamp down on unlawful celebrations. A 1656 satire, Christmas Day mocked those zealots who proclaimed the mince pie to be ‘Idolatrie in crust!’ The mince pie found another defender in the form of Edward Fisher, a Royalist clergyman and author of The Feast of Feasts (1644) and A Christian Caveat to the Old and New Sabbatarians. Fisher denounced his opponents for claiming that it was superstitious ‘to eat mince pies, plum-pottage or brawn in December, to trim churches or private houses with holly and ivy about Christmas.’ Fisher urged the faithful to maintain Christmas traditions to ensure their survival among future generations. The celebration of Christmas was to be an important part of post-reformation recusant and anti-Puritan culture. Dorothy Lawson, a recusant gentlewoman, reportedly celebrated Christmas ‘corporally and spiritually’, with dancing, gambling, and, as we might expect, the consumption of mince pies.
With the Restoration of the monarchy and the accession of Charles II, Christmas celebrations ceased to be illicit. The diarist Samuel Pepys described his return home on Christmas Eve to find his wife making mince pies. On 25 December 1666, Pepys confessed that he “lay pretty long in bed, and then rose, leaving my wife desirous of sleep, having sat up till four this morning seeing her mayds make mince pies.’ After a Christmas dinner of a shoulder of mutton and chicken, and perhaps these same mince pies, it is no surprise that Pepys slept through the afternoon sermon.
By the eighteenth century, the arrival of cheap sugar from West Indian slave plantations helped to transform the mince pie from a savoury to a sweet affair, and eventually to he smaller, meatless, pies that are recognisable today. In Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery (1747), meat had become an optional addition to the mince pie, in a recipe that used 50 apples, 4lb of dried fruit, and one pound of sugar. But the mince pie still had its critics. Sarah Josepha Hale bemoaned the mince pie as a Christmas tradition ‘too firmly rooted for the Pilgrim Fathers to abolish’ primarily on the basis that they were too hard for children to digest which seems an excellent reason to avoid putting temptation before the youngsters in my own house.
Whether you regard the mince pie as the harbinger of Christmas, an affront to good taste, or ‘idolatrie in crust’, love them or hate them, the mince pie seems here to stay. By Christmas morning, Santa will have eaten nearly 40,000 metric tonnes of the things, which makes my own consumption look positively respectable.
If you would like to try making your own historical mincepies, why not have a look at the following Georgian recipe for this beloved festive treat: