© Denzil Green
Mincemeat is a mixture of dried and candied fruit, raisins, currants, sugar, suet, apples, brandy, spices, and nuts. Many variations are possible and available, including vegetarian versions, alcohol-free versions that use North American soft apple cider, and nut-free.
It is used as a filling for pies and tarts, especially at Christmas time. It is a British tradition that transferred to all the new English-speaking countries born out of British colonies, such as America, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
You can buy mincemeat already made in jars or tins. Harrods alone sells over 10,000 pounds (4,000 kilos) of jarred mincemeat each December (as of 2004).
Mincemeat Pies / Tarts (aka Wayfarers Pies)
In the United Kingdom, mincemeat pies are often referred to as just “mince pies.” Out of context, that could of course mean “minced beef” pies, but at Christmas everyone knows what it means. And, even though “mincemeat pies” could in theory be used to refer to whole, large pies that have several servings in them, in practice it actually means “mincemeat tarts” as they are far more common than one whole, large pie.
In Canada and the US, small tart-sized mincemeat pies will be called “mincemeat tarts.”
Mincemeat was first born in Elizabethan times. Medieval cooking and tastes still lingered, with blurry lines between savoury and sweet. In a meat pie, you might put lots of fruit. Mince pies were banned when the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell came into control of Parliament (roughly from the late 1640s to the late 1650s.) The Puritans were already predisposed to ban anything in the way of pleasure and self-indulgence, but what pushed them over the edge about mince pies is that they were traditionally made in the shape of a cradle, representing the manger. To the Puritans, this was another Popish representation.
John Timbs, a Victorian writer, wrote:
“The minced pie was treated by the Puritans as a superstitious observance and after the Restoration it almost served as a test for religious opinions. According to the old rule, the case or crust of a minced pie should be oblong, in imitation of the cradle or manger wherein the Saviour was laid; the ingredients of the mince being said to refer to the offerings of the Wise Men.” John Timbs. Banbury Cakes and Banbury Cross. In: S. Lucas, Ed. Once a Week: An Illustrated Miscellany of Literature, Art, Science. London: Bradbury and Evans. Volume 8. December 1862 to June 1883. Page 584.
When mince pies were legal again, they came back in a round form.
In 1877, the Heinz company started selling prepared mincemeat, available in wooden buckets, stone crocks or glass jars.
“Many recipes of the time called for rum, but Heinz used cider vinegar. Heinz also added candied citron to the recipe… A published Heinz recipe called for ‘fresh meat selected from the country’s best output; rich, white suet; large, juicy, faultless apples; Four-Crown Valencia confection raisins, carefully seeded; plump Grecian currants of exceptional flavor, each one thoroughly cleansed and purified; rich candied citron, orange and lemon peels.” Skrabec, Quentin R. H.J. Heinz: A Biography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2009. pp 73 – 74.
Note the business acumen in the use of ingredients such as “carefully seeded” Valencia raisins, and Grecian currants, with which the average housewife’s recipe couldn’t hope to compete. It also reminds the housewife that she will be spared the labour of having to manually seed each raisin one by one.
Up until the late 1800s, the recipe still contained minced beef. Mrs Beeton’s recipes for mincemeat do.
Nowadays, the beef suet is the last trace of meat in mincemeat.
Literature & Lore
One Christmas superstition is that for every mincemeat pie you eat between Christmas and Twelfth Night (the evening of the twelfth day after Christmas), you will have one month of happiness in the coming year. Actually, the full superstition was that you had to eat 1 pie a day at 12 different houses.
In 1662, Samuel Pepys records in his diary that on Christmas Day he ate mince pies that he bought (he notes that he had to buy them as his wife was ill.)
Elizabeth Craig gave this mincemeat recipe in the 1920s:
“Old Mincemeat Recipe. If you prefer mincemeat made with meat as well as fruit, try this recipe, which was once used by a famous tavernkeeper: Boil till tender, then chop finely, a calf’s foot and a pickled ox tongue, mix in a basin with one pound washed and dried currants, one pound stoned and lightly chopped raisins, one and one-fourth pounds tart apples, peeled and chopped, one-half pound finely shredded suet, one-fourth pound sugar, three ounces each of candied citron, lemon and orange peel, finely minced, the grated rind of half a lemon and the strained juice of two lemons, a small teaspoon of mixed spice and a tiny pinch of salt. Moisten mixture with one and one-half pints of cider if one-half pint sherry and a pint of brandy are not available.
Fruit Mincemeat. Very few English housewives put meat in their mincemeat now. The following recipe for fruit mincemeat is more popular: Peel, core and chop two pounds tart apples finely, mix in a basin with one pound stoned and chopped raisins, one pound washed and dried currants, three ounces each of candied lemon and orange peel and two ounces citron peel, all finely minced, and a nutmeg grated. Stir in one pound sugar, the granted rind and strained juice of a lemon, three-quarters pound finely minced suet, a saltspoon of salt, one-fourth pound chopped glace cherries and two wine glasses of brandy or homemade wine.
Whichever recipe you choose, mix the ingredients well together before packing it into a jar and sealing cover down. It is improved by being made a few days before it is required, when made into pies with rough puff pastry.” Elizabeth Craig. “Boar’s Head and Rough Puff Pastry In an Old-Time English Feast.” Reprinted in: Syracuse Herald, New York State. 4 January 1925, Home Institute Page.
Baldini, Luisa. Centuries old mince pie recipe found. BBC News. 13 December 2004.
|↑1||John Timbs. Banbury Cakes and Banbury Cross. In: S. Lucas, Ed. Once a Week: An Illustrated Miscellany of Literature, Art, Science. London: Bradbury and Evans. Volume 8. December 1862 to June 1883. Page 584.|
|↑2||Skrabec, Quentin R. H.J. Heinz: A Biography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2009. pp 73 – 74.|
|↑3||Elizabeth Craig. “Boar’s Head and Rough Puff Pastry In an Old-Time English Feast.” Reprinted in: Syracuse Herald, New York State. 4 January 1925, Home Institute Page.|