If you’re looking for a quintessential Christmas dessert, you can’t go wrong with mince pies. These bite-sized pastries are filled with a sweet and spicy mixture of fruits and nuts, and they have a long and fascinating history that spans centuries and continents.
But don’t let the name fool you: mincemeat pies have nothing to do with meat. At least, not anymore. The original mincemeat pies were actually savory dishes that contained chopped meat, suet (animal fat), dried fruits and spices. They were a way to preserve meat without using salt or smoke, and they were influenced by the Middle Eastern cuisine that European crusaders encountered in the Holy Land in the 12th century.
The spices in mincemeat pies, such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, had a special significance for Christians. They represented the gifts that the three wise men brought to the baby Jesus, according to the English antiquary John Timbs. The pies were also shaped like a manger and topped with a pastry baby Jesus to symbolize the nativity scene.
Mincemeat pies became a staple of the Christmas season in England, where they were enjoyed by rich and poor alike. They were a sign of celebration and abundance, and they were often decorated with elaborate patterns and designs. However, not everyone appreciated this festive tradition. In the 17th century, the Puritan authorities in England tried to ban mince pies and other Christmas festivities, as they considered them to be sinful and idolatrous. They believed that Christmas should be a solemn occasion, not a time for feasting and merrymaking.
But the people loved their mince pies too much to give them up. They defied the Puritan ban and continued to make and eat them in secret. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, mince pies were welcomed back to the Christmas table with open arms.
Over time, mincemeat pies evolved to become sweeter and smaller. The meat content was gradually reduced or eliminated altogether, as more fruits and sugar were added. The pies also became rounder and more portable, making them easier to eat and share. By the Victorian era, mince pies had become a popular tea-time snack that could be bought ready-made or homemade.
Today, mince pies are still a beloved part of the Christmas tradition in many parts of the world, especially in the United Kingdom and Ireland. They are usually made with store-bought or homemade mincemeat that can be found in jars or cans, but some people like to make their own from scratch using fresh or dried fruits, nuts, spices and liquor. They are often served warm with cream or custard, or cold with a glass of mulled wine or cider.
Mince pies are more than just a delicious treat; they are also a reflection of the history and culture that shaped them. They are a testament to the influence of different cuisines and religions on English food traditions. They are also a symbol of the spirit of Christmas: generosity, joy and hope.