As we approach ever closer to the festive season, you’ll notice supermarkets quickly stocking up their shelves with all sorts of Christmassy goodies. Well…they tend to do that even before we get close to the festive season, don’t they? Regardless, among those festive treats you’ll often find the ever-popular mince pie.
Commonly filled with a mixture of dried fruits and spices called “mincemeat”, they are traditionally served during the Christmas season in much of the English-speaking world. But what if I told you that hidden deep in English history there exists a slight twist on the famous small pastry? That its evolution into what we all know and love began its journey as something quite different many, many years ago…
Introducing: the 'meaty' mince pie! Yes, you heard that correctly. This is no ordinary mince pie.
So what exactly is a 'meaty' mince pie, I hear you scream? While I'm sure most of us know the mince pie for being that sweet treat we enjoy at Christmas (and use to fatten up Santa so he brings us more presents), you may not be aware that it was not always in its fruitful form which we know of today. In fact, the pies were originally once filled with mutton (a.k.a meat from a sheep over two years old).
'Meaty' mince pies (as we now call them) date back to The Crusades, due to an abundance of different culinary condiments being brought back from the Middle East. During Christmas in the medieval times, the pies would have been decoratively studded with the best quality dried fruit. The pies were not round at this time, instead being made into the shape of a rectangle (which is why they were named ‘coffins’ originally). A slightly negative label for the pie, granted, but coffin merely meant ‘box’ back then.
After the Restoration period in England which ended in the late sixteen-hundreds, the mince pie changed its ‘coffin’ like shape to the circle-shape that you'll notice is more familiar with today’s recipe.
Its most popular time of consumption was through the 17th century when the pies contained minced cooked mutton, beef suet, currants and raisins. Ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon were added to give more flavour, as well as sometimes salt and a pinch of sugar.
The next century saw the distribution of cheap sugar from the slave plantations in the West Indies, leading to it becoming far more widespread. This meant that the mince pie started going through some changes. The filling was shaken up, and meat became optional. Instead, modest amounts of sugar, along with cooking apples, suet and dried fruit became the rival filling. Starting to sound familiar? The pies had become more suitable for tea time, unlike their savoury sisters.
The popularity surrounding the ‘meatier side of mince pies’ was a distant memory by the time 19th century rolled around. The pies were more similar to the ones we now recognise and very few recipes used beef suet for extra flavour or to boost the pies juiciness. In fact, most recipes dropped the meat completely!
That said, if you're looking to bake something different this Christmas, why not give the meaty mince pie a try? They're incredibly easy to make, and many recipes can still be found today (like this one by English heritage!) After all, perhaps it’s time the meaty mince pie made its comeback, centuries after it was first made...
...or maybe we'll just stick to the average old mince pie, because they're just SO tasty!