I once knew a chap who absolutely hated mince pies. To be honest they are not my favourite Christmas fare, but they are quite nice in the right context (hot, topped with some thick brandy cream and served with a glass of mulled wine of the side, ideally). Anyway, this fellow loathed them. The reason for this was the first time he was offered one, as a child of about 11 I believe, he had never heard of the things before. Nevertheless, he accepted, assuming it was just a small version of a hot minced beef pie. However, when he bit into what he expected to be a meaty treat, he found instead some very unexpected sugary fruit. The experience of getting such intense sweetness when he expected savoury put him off the things for life.
It is fairly common knowledge, I think, that mince pies at one point back in the mists of time actually did contain real meat (and no, I don’t just mean beef suet). It’s the kind of fact that comes up in Christmas quizzes and the like around this time of year. The name “mincemeat” is apparently a remnant from the days when there would be some meat in there. The taste would probably not have been much less surprising to a modern day eater expecting a standard meat pie though, for as we shall see in the recipe (coming soon in the next post!) there was indeed plenty we would recognise in early modern minced pies. In looking for recipes, I found quite a number. Not all contained beef mince, however – I found a recipe for “Minced Pye of Eggs” in one of the ever helpful Hannah Woolley’s cookbooks (The compleat servant-maid, 1677) containing hard boiled eggs along with suet, dried fruit, sugar, caraway seeds,orange peel and a few other sweet things. Mounsieur Marnette’s The perfect cook (1656) features recipes for Italian style minced pies (featuring veal, partidge, chesnuts, currants, sugar, sweet-breads and many more ingredients), Spanish minced pies (including capon, pork, mutton, kidney, bacon, suet, leeks, salt and sweet spices), several kinds of fish-based minced pies, and “Princesse” pies (containing roast or boiled meat, beef marrow and sweetbreads). The most popular ingredient, however, did seem to be beef, or more specifically neat’s tongue (ox tongue). The aforementioned Hannah Woolley cookbook has tongue as the primary ingredient for “An excellent Minc’d pie”, as does The accomplished ladies rich closet of rarities (J.S., 1687). I didn’t go for the tongue when I tried it as I already had some beef leftover from cooking the hash of raw beef.
So, we have many recipes for mince or minced pies, but were they considered Christmas fare? It seems not exclusively so – one of Martnette’s fish pies for example specifically excludes butter so that it can be made and eaten during Lent. However, the phrase “a mince pie at Christmas” comes up in a number of texts, and minced pies are included – alongside a large number of other foods, mind you – on a Christmas menu in Robert May’s The Accomplist Cook (1660). Here’s the menu in full – it’s length is certainly not uncharacteristic for the feasts and banquets of the upper classes during the period:
A Bill of Fare for Christmas Day, and how to set the Meat in order. Oysters
- 1 A coller of Brawn.
- 2 Stewed Broth of Mutton Marrow bones.
- 3 A grand Sallet.
- 4 A pottage of Caponets.
- 5 A Breast of Veal in Stoffado.
- 6 A boild Partridge.
- 7 A Chine of Beef, or Surloin roste.
- 8 Minced Pies.
- 9 A Jegote of Mutton with Anchove sauce.
- 10 A made dish of Sweetbread.
- 11 A Swan roste.
- 12 A Pasty of Venison.
- 13 A Kid with a Pudding in his Belly.
- 14 A Steak Pie.
- 15 A hanch of Venison rosted.
- 16 A Turkey roste and stuck with Cloves.
- 17 A made dish of Chickens in Puff-paste.
- 18 Two Brangeese rosted, one larded.
- 19 Two large Capons one larded.
- 20 A Custard.
The second course for the same Mess. Oranges and Lemons.
- 1 A young Lamb or Kid.
- 2 Two couple of Rabits, two larded.
- 3 A Pig soust with Tongues.
- 4 Three Ducks, one larded.
- 5 Three Pheasants, 1 larded.
- 6 A Swan Pie.
- 7 Three brace of Partridge, three larded.
- 8 Made dish in puff-paste.
- 9 Bolonia Sausage, and Anchove, Mushrooms, and Caviare, and pickled Oysters in a dish.
- 10 Six Teels, three larded.
- 11 A Gammon of Westfalia Bacon.
- 12 Ten Plovers, five larded.
- 13 A Quince Pie, or Warden Pie.
- 14 Six Woodcocks, 3 larded.
- 15 A standing Tart in puffpaste, preserved fruits, Pippins, &c.
- 16 A dish of Larks.
- 17 Six dried Neats Tongues.
- 18 Sturgeon.
- 19 Powdered Geese.
And you thought your Christmas dinner was extravagant! It’s interesting to see turkey on the menu, along with goose and swan, the latter of which we don’t eat at all any more. I thought this had something to do with them being owned by the Queen, I did a bit of googling but didn’t find anything definitive. Anyway, they were apparently still eating them in the 17th century. Turkeys, however, we are often told are a recent introduction as a Christmas dinner, but this seems to contradict that. Turkeys are relative newcomers to these shores, having been brought here from America in the mid-16th century. By the time of this menu they had been available to eat for around 100 years. But this huge menu doesn’t prove much about mince pies being Christmassy, so to make my case I have for your delectation a short interlude of sorts included in a festive pamphlet entitled Mother Shipton’s Christmas Carols with her Merry Neighbours (1668). The eponymous (and no doubt fictitious) Mother Shipton also includes a dialogue between roast beef, mince-pie, and plumb pottage contending for superiority (remind you of anything?), complete with terrible food-based puns. I shall be back with a recipe for mince pies very soon, but in the meantime I present to you this jolly interlude that I have transcribed it myself from a scan on EEBO:
Here followeth a Dialogue Between Roast Beef, Mince-pie, and Plumb-pottage, contending for superiority with the verdict of Strong beer, their moderator there on
Strong B. Now Gentlemen this is the time and this the place you have appointed for your disputation : and having chosen me for your Moderator. I advise you (and good counsel too I hold it) to do nothing rashly, but first lets drink
All. We relish it
Strong B. And now having liquored your lips, pipe on and spare not
Plumb-pot. Why then Mr. Beer craving your good attention, I declare and hope to prove it is my property to preceed, Mr. Mince-pie and Roast beef, and ought in any sound opinion to be the first dish on the Table, and my plea for it is Ancient Custome, which I hope may suffice without any further reasons
Mince-pie. Pish, never tell me of your Reasons: your Reasons are not in Date and therefore starj nought, and as for Custome, I say ’tis more Customary to prefer Pye before Pottage, ergo your Custome is not worth a Cucumber
Roast B. Nay then Gentlemen room for Horns, though I have been silent all this while, don’t you think to rule the Roast
Mr Beef, consider I am Beef, a good substantial food: a dish for a Prince, and indeed (as ’tis Recorded) the King of meats
Plumb-P. Gravely spoken
Strong B. In truth so it is, and I think it fit to exalt the Horn
R.B. And not without cause considering the Dignity his Royal Majesty King James was pleased to confer on me, when one day coming down into his Kitchin, I gave him such satisfaction that he daign’d me with the Honour of Knighthood, with the title of Sir Loine, and therefore claim precedency before these mincing Mimicks
P.P. But pray Beef, was you ever in this jovial time of Christmas prefer’d before me
Mince P. Or even gave that pleasing satisfaction or delight to Ladies, or any sort of Persons as I have done
R.B. Mr Sweet tooth hold you your prating I always had the upper hand of you
M.P. Tell not me of upper hand nor underhand I say I am a dish full of dainty
Roast B. Yes for old women that have no teeth: besides you come but once a yea, but I am in season at all times. You but please Children and Fools, but I am in repute with all sots of what quality soever
Plumb P. Pray Gentlemen let me speak
Roast B. Prethee what can’st say? nothing: but mutter as if you had plums in your mouth, why thou art nothing of thy self, whence art though deriv’d or what’s thy pedegree? nothing by a little water, and fitting for nothing but to cleanse the dishes after me, were it not for the goodness of Beef that gives the being by its favor
Strong B. Mince pie, me thinks thou should’st bear up man, slid for all their talking thou makst their teeth water sometimes at thee
Roast B. And we are much obliged
Mince P. You are a stinking peice of Beef to abuse me so, I make you rotten?
Roast B. Yes sweet Sir, that you do
Mince P. Tough Sir but I do not
Strong B. Nay lets have no quarrelling good, Mr Beef, pray Mr Pye
Roast B. Slid tempt me a little more, I shall fall foul on you
Mince P. If you doe, I’m sure you, you’ll shew foul play and bite me, but Ile maintain my honour in spight of they teeth
Roast B. Let me come at him Ile crumble him Ile warrant you
Strong B. Nay good Beef be not so hot, Let him alone a little till he is colder then you may fasten on him at more advantage
Mince P. I shall pull down his fat sides no doubt
Strong B. Come Gentlemen i’m sorry to see you at violence, pray let me moderate the business between you, why should friends fall our? Come what say ye will you all stand to my award
All. With all our hearts? Eloquent Strong-Beer!
Strong B. Then first for you Mr Plumb Pottage: Since it hath been so long a Custome for you to be first ushered to the Table, we shall continue it still to you during the time of Christmas, so that you do not take it ill, that some at other times make use of you last of all, as is sometime necessary to fill up the chinks, And for you Mr Mince-pye, for the time of Christmas also are to be the Senior in all mens mouths, but ever after to disappear and vanish. As the Prince at Lincolns Inn was cominus factoreum for twelve days but afterwards shrunk into his former peasantry for ever after So must you yeild the preheminence to Mr Roast Beef as royal for all the year after. What say ye, are ye all satisfied!
All. O very well, very well! Rhetorical Strong Beer!
Strong B. Come on then, then lets end all differences in a cup of Strong Bub, and spend the time in singing and carouzing a health to all that love Plumb-Pottage, Mince pye, Roast Beef and Strong Beer.
Of lusty brown Beer I joy for to hear
But a pox of your White-wine and Claret
I hate for to hear
Of such pittiful geer
For a barrel-ful’s not worth a Carret
Then bub with good courage
‘Tis season’d with Burrage
Their’s nothing more wholesome and merry
Though our cloathes be but thin
It warms me within
And makes us sing he down a derry
There’s nothing above it
He’s a food does not love it
At Christmas it maketh good cheer
Nay more to invite you
And still to delight you
‘Tis as plentiful all the whole year!
I hope you enjoyed that. Don’t say I never give you anything! Merry Christmas everyone!