Matter of Taste: On its journey from meat to sweet, the mince pie conquered Christmas

The annual festive treat is loved and loathed in equal measure, but has earned its place at the centre of festivities

Matter of Taste: On its journey from meat to sweet, the mince pie conquered Christmas

[Pixabay]

There is absolutely no form of mince pie I would shove into my mouth at the earliest opportunity. When other people moan and grumble about the arrival of boxes of the little spice-filled pastry frusta on supermarket shelves as early as late September, I spy the festively decorated packages with relish, usually giving into the temptation to buy at some point in October, working through the six-pack with the kind of gluttonous munching that suggests this is the closest my stomach will ever get to a six pack.

I could go off on some lengthy, pseudo-literary rant about how taking a bite of a mince pie sends me on a savoury stroll down memory lane, a Madeleine meandering to the remembrance of the times on Christmas Eves past when my mother would eff and blind while attempting to tease the bastard shortcrust from off her rolling pin and into the scalloped mould when making them at home. But the truth is I think it only happened once, maybe twice. And the solitary time we had homemade mincemeat, from a recipe created by a Delia or a Darina, or any other domestic goddess whose culinary merit deems her worthy of an eponymous guide to the perfect Christmas, it was quietly agreed that the supermarket variety was just as nice – and somewhat more cost effective.

The memory of making mince pies isn’t some formative tradition that I lock away in my cold heart, only to be awoken by the punch of booze and spices on my tongue as the pastry crumbles into mush in your hand. But I love them, nonetheless, in every way imaginable. From pie pops to deep-dish, my love of the mince pie is so profound that during the summertime, you’ll find me eagerly eyeing up cakes Chester and Eccles in bakery windows, which, without mincing one’s words, make for a more seasonal substitute.

For the uninitiated, the mince pie, as it is known in Great Britain and Ireland and to some extent across the nations of the English-speaking world (ho ho h[egem]o[ny]), is a miniature round pie, stuffed with a filling known as mincemeat. These days, that filling is typically a mix of dried fruits, chopped nuts, apples, and spices, mixed through with lemon juice or vinegar. In honour of the festive season, the dry ingredients are often reinvigorated with a fortifying pour of brandy or whiskey, and then served with a liberal dollop of cream or butter infused with even more booze.

Mincemeat, of course, suggests the pies were once also filled with something altogether fleshier, and the snack’s medieval origins did involve meat, although those pies are so far removed from the 40m sold in the UK every year as to be almost unrecognisable. Back then, pie crusts were known as coffins, moulded from a basic mix of flour and water that was kneaded into the shape of a leak-proof vessel. Into these moulded pastry cases would be poured the filling for cooking, only for the coffin to be thrown away once the contents were gone. While medieval pies were usually large and uncovered, almost all recipes for the earliest mince pies suggest they’ve always been single serving and self-contained pockets of festive spice. At the time, they were known as chewets, most likely because their pinched pastry tops resembled small cabbages or chouettes.

In the kitchens of the wealthy, shredded beef or liver – even fish during fasting days – would be mixed with spices like ginger and mace, as well as chopped hardboiled eggs. “Why not add fruit?” thought someone once, exotically enriching the filling with currants and apples, with the recipe catching on so much that by the 16th century, ‘minced’ or ‘shred’ pies, as they were known, had become a Christmastime staple.

The meaty part of the mince pie started to disappear around the 17th century and today it is only included in recipes as a curiosity of food history. That said, most pies today still aren’t vegetarian, with suet – the hard fat from around the kidneys and loins of cattle and sheep – a common ingredient, its low melting point gelling together the filling in a better-not-to-think about it mush. You’ll recognise Beware anyone espousing the inherent values of the vegetarian alternatives – they are often made from palm oil, a controversial crop that has ties to a number of environmental and societal issues that can make them hard to swallow.

For the many people out there who can see no appeal in the mince pie, who refuse every offer at carol services or office parties, take some advice, at least, from Mildred P Blakelock, who writes in her 1932 book Old English Cookery about the humble pie: “It is lucky to eat as many as possible before Christmas, as says the dweller in London, or is the more elaborate custom found in Yorkshire more correct? The writer of this book, being a Yorkshire woman, is quite sure that it is not correct to eat mince pies before Christmas, but to eat one in a different house if possible on each of the 12 days of the season of Christmas. Anyone who does this ensures a happy year, as each mince pie so eat is supposed to bring a happy month!”

While my jumper may be a minefield of crumbs, that should see me in good fortune till at least 2055, so...

For more food news on Newstalk.com, please click here.