Fruity, boozy little mouthfuls, mince pies will doubtless make an appearance on every table this holiday season, making spirits bright and then going straight to your hips. The diminutive treats are so omnipresent it’s easy to take them for granted, but they have a long history, which saw them morph from hefty ground-mutton goodies into today’s dainty tarts.
They’ve even been caught up in some intriguing, longstanding legends, which reveal perhaps more about people’s prejudices and desire for a good story than about the dessert itself.
Pies as a culinary art form are old inventions, although they haven’t always involved buttery, flaky pastry. For many centuries, they seem to have been primarily shells of flour and water paste wrapped around a filling to keep it moist while baking.
The cases, which could be several inches thick, according to Janet Clarkson, author of Pie: A History, were perhaps not even intended to be edible. Even once fat had begun to be added to the dough, bringing us into the realm of modern pastry, a pie crust was still sometimes considered more as a kind of primitive Tupperware.
pie full of spices and meat appears in 1390 in A Forme of Cury, an English cookbook originally written on a scroll, under the name “tartes of flesh”. To make these morsels, cooks were instructed to grind up pork, hard-boiled eggs, and cheese, before mixing them with spices, saffron, and sugar.
Other recipes redolent of today’s mince pies include one that appears in Gervase Markham’s The English Huswife, published in 1615. In this recipe, an entire leg of mutton and three pounds of suet go in, along with salt, cloves, mace, currants, raisins, prunes, dates, and orange peel. They were big, sturdy things – these pies were not finger food, but enough to serve many diners at once.
A well-baked meat pie, with liquid fat poured into any steam holes left open and left to solidify, might even be kept for up to a year, with the crust apparently keeping out air and spoilage. It seems difficult to fathom today, but as Clarkson reflects, “it was such a common practice that we have to assume that most of the time consumers survived the experience”.