You may have noticed that certain foods are associated with certain festivals (or vice-versa!). Gujiyas and Holi, ada payasam and Onam, Easter Eggs and Easter, kaju katli and Diwali and so on. As Christmas will be here soon, I am yearning for rich dark plum cake or the fruit and nut cake my aunt used to bake for us. Since I don’t have access to that pleasure here in London, I have been looking for alternatives.
Though I am still in search of the perfect sweet treat, I did come across a local Christmas special that has travelled far and wide to become a British classic. They are called mince pies.
Mince pies first entered my consciousness when I was busy devouring Enid Blyton books. At the time I was convinced they were crumbly pies filled with succulent savoury meat — what else could mince pies be? I was disabused of this notion two years back when I bit into one for the first time.
“It is sweet!” I remember squealing to my friend.
“Oh yes. These pies are made of sweet mince,” she explained.
“Sweetened meat?” I asked, trying to gulp the dry mouthful down.
“No no! It’s a mince made of chopped dried fruit, a bit of alcohol and warm spices,” she clarified.
While I was disappointed by the taste, the history of the mince pie caught my fancy.
Mince pies are small round sweet pies, made with dried fruits and spices. They are a Christmas tradition in the UK. But the origins of the mince pie are anything but European. The recipe was imported to Europe in the 12th century by soldiers returning from the Crusades in the Middle East. Influenced by the Arab cuisine, these pies contained meats, dried fruits and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.
Barring the generous helping of meat, other ingredients in the mince pies remain the same to date. Except for the shape and size. They were rectangular, and curiously referred to as a ‘coffin’. Or maybe it was not so curious since the word meant ‘box’ before the 1500s (after which it began to be used to signify a funerary box).
Unlike today’s mince pies which range from small to tiny, medieval mince pies were fairly big, some weighing as much as 9 kg! Different recipes called for different meats to be used — some recommended mutton, others goose, beef or veal, or even beef tongue. These could be flavoured with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mace, salt, pepper, orange peel, raisins, currants, prunes, dates, orange peel and fruit. A signature ingredient of these pies was beef suet, a hard fat used to make flaky pastries.
The mince pie’s sweet avatar came into being in the 18th century when cheap sugar arrived from slave plantations in the West Indies.
By the 19th century the mince meat pies became quite modern, where bakers prepared fruit and nutty mince pie in advance and baked them in pasty cases later.
Though some cooks still try to stick to the traditional mince pies with meat even today, it is not a popular custom.
Historically mince pies have had a religious connotation, being linked with Christmas and Catholicism, but not any more. Today they remain a Christmas classic in the UK minus any religious flavour.