Mince pies originally contained meat of some sort and were already established as part of Christmas fare during the Tudor period. As they were usually referred to in the singular it seems likely that they were larger pies rather than the individual ones that are usual today. In fact the pie crust is often referred to as a ‘coffin’, giving a clear picture of what we would perhaps prefer to think of as a loaf shape. The mixture of sweet and savoury flavours together was common throughout this period. We do still, of course, do the same, when we serve apple sauce with roast pork for example.
Contrary to what has been written in some places the suet that is used in mince pies didn’t replace the meat but was always there along side it. How these pies have evolved is interesting.
Gervase Markham, writing in 1615, is using mutton as the meat, and adding currants, raisins, prunes, dates and orange peel, along with spices. There is a sad lack of alcohol in this recipe though.
Robert May, writing in 1660 has different recipes for mince pies of veal, mutton or beef. The recipe for the beef ones is catering on a grand scale (he did think that England needed to go back to the ‘good old days’ of before what we now call the English civil war). He takes eight pounds of beef, eight pounds of suet and four pounds each of both currants and raisins, along with nutmeg, clove and mace but no sugar.
One thing that characterises all these earlier recipes is far less sugar than we would use today, and certainly the over sweetened packaged ones that are available today would have been unrecognizable to Mr Markham or Mr May. The post popular versions during the eighteenth century feature tongue as the meat, and the version from Thomas Gell’s recipe collection is here.
To make minc’d pyes
Take 2 Tongues the same weight in Beef Suit 4 pound of Currans and 2 of Raisins, half an Ounce of Nutmeggs, a quarter of an Ounce of Mace, half a quarter of an ounce of Cloves and Cinnamen and Do of Lemon Peel, Wine, Brandy and Sugar to your taste. The bigness of the Tongues must be considered when you put in the above nam’d Spices &c.
Thomas Gell records three festive meals in 1728, 1752 and 1754 and all have ‘minced pye’s as part of one of the courses.
Mrs Beeton, 1861, seems to bring in the idea of making the mincemeat earlier and storing it in jars to mature, and like Mrs Raffald, (1794) has a recipe with and without meat in, although Mrs Raffald favours neat’s tongue while Mrs B. prefers beef. Both use brandy, but Mrs Raffald doesn’t sweeten her pies. The recipe Mrs Beeton gives makes 12lbs of mincemeat which she costs at 8d. ‘A plain cookery book for the working classes’ (1852) uses tripe in its mince pies, which may be economical but perhaps not so appealing.
In a handwritten collection of recipes I have that include dated ones for 1897 and 1902 there is a recipe for mincemeat that includes minced beef. The beauty of manuscript recipes is that unlike those in cookery books, which you don’t know for certain are being used unless annotated or covered in food stains, written out recipes have definitely been used and discovered good enough to keep. This is one I shall be trying this weekend.
By 1914 when Elizabeth Criag was writing, the meat has disappeared from the minced meat pies, and the mince pie, much as we know it, has emerged.