Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Sweetening Saga of the Mince Meat

                Hand in hand with Christmas Pudding comes Christmas pie. These are usually known as Mince Pies, although some modern folk find it strange that a pie containing no minced meat can be called a mince pie. There are two reasons for this. In the past, ‘meat’ was a term for any food, by which meaning we still use it in such phrases as, ‘It’s all meat and drink to me’. The other reason is that, in the past, mince pies did contain meat (and some still do, if you count beef suet as meat – it is animal fat, after all). 

Pyes in the Oven

As winter approached and animal feed grew scarcer, it was common to slaughter livestock towards the end of the year, eliminating the need to feed them through the winter months. However, preserving meat in the past was not a simple process; some meat could be smoked, some preserved in brine or salted, some could be cured in other ways or dried, and some could be preserved in sugars. This meant either in fruit sugars or honey, and various methods were employed. 

More pyes in the oven

Some included using spices to flavour the meat but this was not a method of disguising the taste of meat that was past its best. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s such a widespread myth that I’ll say it again. In the past, spices were phenomenally expensive, often worth more than their weight in gold. They had to be imported from the East, either overland via the Middle Eastern merchants or by sea, in sailing ships that had to risk sailing around the southern capes. If you could afford spices, you would not waste them on ropy meat. Spices were a conspicuous display of your wealth and were used to impress your friends and neighbours. They were not used to cover up the taste of bad meat. 

Mince Pyes

I have also mentioned that mixing meat and fruit may sound odd, but it has a long history. We happily put pineapple in sweet and sour dishes, serve roast pork with apple sauce, turkey with cranberries, duck with orange, lamb with apricots and so forth. The fruit sugars were used to add flavour and also to preserve meats, in the days before reliable refrigeration. Meat and fruit would be baked in pies, the crusts of which were called ‘coffins’, and were sometimes called ‘shrids’ or ‘minched pyes’. In Sheppard’s Epigrams (1651), is this short verse, 
“No matter for Plomb-porridge,or Shrid-pies

Or a whole Oxe offered in sacrifice

To Comus, not to Christ.” 

Serving the Pie

Another verse, entitled The Religion of the Hypocritical Presbyterians in meeter, (1661) reads, 
“Three Christmass or Minc'd Pies, all very fair, 
Methought they had this Motto, Though they flirt us 
And preach us down, ‘sub pondere crescit virtut’. 
(i.e. Under the weight of growing virtue). 
The Puritans, as I have mentioned, regarded all the traditional Christmas foods as vain gluttonies, and railed against, 
… Christmas Pye as an invention of the scarlet whore of Babylon, an hodge-podge of superstition, popery, the devil, and all his works.” 
Some say that ‘mince pie’ is a Puritanism and they ought really to be called Christmas Pies – the Puritans objected to the word Christmas which they associated with the Popish Christ’s Mass, and they also called them Nativity pies. Thankfully, there were opponents to the killjoys, as in this parody, 
“The high-shoe lords of Cromwell’s making

Were not for dainties — roasting, baking;

The chiefest food they found most good in

Was rusty bacon and bag pudding;

Plum-broth was popish, and mince-pie —

O that was flat idolatry!”

Cutting a Pie

The Puritans failed in their bid to outlaw Christmas (although you may occasionally hear the (false) urban myth that mince pies are still illegal in England), and Henri Misson, in his Travels in England (1719), notes, 
“Every family against Christmass makes a famous pye, which they call Christmas 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, &c.” 
The early pies were baked in the shape of a crib or manger, and a figure of the Christ Child moulded from pastry was placed on top – this was called the Yule Dough or Dow (the practice had fallen into disuse by 1813, according to John Brand’s Observations on Popular Antiquities). Once sugar became more readily available, particularly from the Americas, the division in English cookery between sweet and savoury foods became more pronounced, with mince pies gravitating towards the sweet end of the spectrum. 

Minced Pies

Modern mince pies may contain suet, but also contain a mixture of dried and candied fruits, peels, citron, raisins, spices, brandy, sherry, cherries, figs and so on; the most traditional recipes contain thirteen ingredients, symbolising Christ and his twelve apostles. Mince meat may be made well in advance of Christmas and improves in taste as it matures and ages. 

Even more Mince Pies

The pies may be closed or open topped and can be served hot or cold, either on their own or together with a topping such as cream, custard or ice-cream. One old tradition is to eat a mince pie on every one of the twelve days of Christmas, each in a different house, which will bring luck to all of them. 

Little Jack Horner

There is a story that began to circulate during the nineteenth century that during the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, the last abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, Richard Whiting, sought to sway and delight the King by sending him a Christmas pie in which he had hidden the deeds to twelve of the Abbey’s choicest estates. He sent the pie with one of his agents, Thomas Horner, who, during his journey to London, opened the pie and purloined the deeds to the manor of Mells, in Somerset, for himself. Henry dissolved Glastonbury Abbey anyway, Whiting was brutally slaughtered on trumped-up charges of treason, and Horner took possession of Mells, where his descendants still live. They say that the story is just that – a story – and their ancestor bought the manor from the crown, but the tale has come to be regarded as the inspiration for the nursery rhyme of Little Jack Horner, who pulled a ‘plum’ (i.e. Mells) from a pie. There is a couplet from the time that circulated in Somerset (and beyond) at the time, 
“Horner, Popham, Wyndham, and Thynne, 
When the abbot came out, then they went in.”

A Pair of Mince Pies (that's rhyming slang for eyes).

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