The smell of baking pastry and mincemeat heralds the arrival of Christmas. As a child my first mince pie of Christmas was always December 1st, since there was a family birthday that day. Our tradition was a mince pie each everyday in December thereafter. My mum would bake them in large batches at least twice a week, so our home was often filled with that rich aroma. Perhaps our family tradition was a variation on the original tradition of a mince pie for each of the twelve days of Christmas. We certainly ate more mince pies our way.
Mince pies are a popular festive food here in Britain. They are small individual pies, made up from the pastry of your choice (this one with ground almonds sounds especially luxurious). My mum used shortcrust pastry, though one year she made shortbread for the pie tops which was tasty. The pies are filled with mincemeat, and if you’re a whizz in the kitchen you can always make your own mincemeat. Once upon a time, mincemeat did actually include minced meat, of apparently whatever meat happened to be at hand, mixed with the dried fruits and spices, and goes right back to medieval times. Today’s mincemeat contains no minced meat, and though most mincemeats do retain suet, it isn’t uncommon for those who make their own mincemeat to leave that out as well, leaving just the thick syrupy mix of dried fruits, citrus peel and spices. Mincemeat sometimes contains alcohol, but most don’t. In a recipe it can be replaced with orange juice. More usually mincemeat can be bought from the supermarket in the same way as jams and marmalades. One Christmas in Tokyo, a friend and I got together to make mince pies, Robertson’s mincemeat having been available in one of the stores that sold imported foodstuffs to homesick expats. I make lousy pastry, for which I blame my hot hands, so I these days I cheat all round, and buy both ready-to-roll shortcrust pastry and mincemeat.
The proportion of pastry to mincemeat changes the eating experience. Under normal circumstances, be it pies, sandwiches, curry, pasta or pizza I prefer more filling or topping and less of the carbohydrate. But with mincemeat I find a little goes a long way. The pies I was raised with had a thick pastry and just a teaspoon of mincemeat, and that’s how I like them. The shallow patty tins my mum has, for the best result, are difficult to find today. I do my best with the popular bun tin, but it really is too deep.
Cromwell and the puritans disapproved of the gluttony (he’d have been disgusted by our mince pie-a-day tradition) and other festivities associated with the celebration of Christmas, and there has long been a myth that the eating of mince pies at Christmas is even now illegal, all down to Cromwell, though apparently that one is no longer on the statute books, if it ever was. Still, there have been modern day scares as well, with an MP accused of trying to ban mince pies. Mince pies are offered to guests, visitors and carol singers during the Christmas season, and it is traditional to leave a mince pie for Father Christmas.
In my own family we eat fewer mince pies, and have adjusted the tradition. We have mince pies as refreshments after every family home evening in December. We also eat them on Christmas Eve and of course Christmas Day.
What festive food traditions do you enjoy?