Holiday explainer special: the history of mince pies! 🥧
It’s an English Christmas staple. Found on pretty much every table during the holiday season, Mince Pies are sweet, fruity (and often boozy!) pies made from shortcrust pastry and something called mincemeat.
If you’re not British (or from the US, as we’ll find out later…), then you might have only heard of these mysterious pies in passing. Perhaps not at all. Or maybe you have seen them or tried them but were too scared to ask what the hell was in them or why on earth they’re called “mince” pies.
Fear not! I am here to answer all your mince pie-related questions in a holiday explainer special. Let’s go!
Why is it called Mincemeat? A Mince Pie history lesson.
First, a cautionary tale…
There’s a lot of speculation as to the true origin of the mince pie.
One corner of the Internet places the roots of a mince pie at the time of Oliver Cromwell. The legend goes that Cromwell banned Christmas puddings and other festive sweet treats, so people got creative and started putting sweet fillings into pies instead. It’s even the given theory in several YouTube videos by self-proclaimed historians. A speedy Google search, however, will tell you that this theory is false and has been debunked.
But if not Mr Cromwell, then where does the story of the mince pie begin?
Where do mince pies come from? And is there meat in mince pies?
In reality, the origin of the ingredients can be traced back to the 12th and/or 13th Centuries, when European crusaders returned home, having discovered (see: stolen) Middle Eastern recipes and spices.
It’s a much more plausible theory if we take a second to reflect on Europe’s history of invading lands and stealing their shit.
Middle Eastern cuisine had already been using spices and meat to make both sweet and savoury dishes for some time. The Europeans appeared and essentially said,
“Love what you’re doing here. We’re gonna steal your recipes, take some of your spices back to our lands and shove everything in a big ol’ pastry bowl.”
(I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.)
Given the number of literal wars we Europeans have gotten ourselves into over food, this makes much more sense.
But as you may or may not know by now, modern mince pies don’t actually contain meat anymore. So, what happened?
If there’s no meat, why is it called mincemeat?
When the pies were first created, using adaptions of Middle Eastern recipes, they did include meat. It was most often mutton, but sometimes lamb, beef, pork, rabbit or game. So, basically, most meats.
The original mince pies were filled with finely minced meat, fruit and a preserving liquid. Take a look at the video above for a traditional mince pie recipe.
As we move further through history, the mince pie somehow became associated with Christmas. According to author Margaret Baker in her 1988 book “Discovering Christmas Customs and Folklore,” the pies contained 13 ingredients during Tudor times. These ingredients were supposedly representative of Jesus and his disciples.
The pies were also rectangular in shape and much larger than the small, round ones we’re used to eating today.
Mince pies evolved over the years, with people slowly dropping the meat from them and adding more sugar as it became widely available and cheap. By the Victorian age, the meat had been replaced completely in favour of fruits, currants, spices, sugar and candied peel, all soaked in alcohol (brandy, traditionally).
Modern Mince Pies in Britain
The mince pies we know today are not too different from those in the Victorian era. Although perhaps a little less boozy than in previous times…
A recent, very serious research study found only 1.5% of the mincemeat in a pack of six mince pies from Tesco to be made from Cognac. The result of the study? Eating a full pack of mince pies will not put you over the drink-drive limit. Eat away!
But if you make mince pies yourself and fancy adding a bit of fun to your family Christmas parties, then I won’t stop you from adding more booze in. Which alcohol should you use, you ask? British supermarket, Sainsbury’s, recommends any of the “seasonal” liqueurs – brandy, rum, whisky Cointreau, sloe gin, port. Pick your fighter.
Speaking of boozy mince pies, here are some other fun mince pie facts you might want to know!
Other fun mince pie fun facts
1. The mince pie also made it to North America.
Apparently, British colonists from the 17th century thought them worthy of import 🤷🏻♀️
2. In fact, Mince Pies became so American, that at one time they were “inextricable from our national identity”.
This Chicago Reader essay provides the history of mince pies in the US. It’s a great read!
3. Mince Pies became even more popular during prohibition.
“Liquor would again be legal for culinary purposes, though subject to regulation through a system of licensing. But as with all similar exemptions to the Dry Law (medical, industrial, ritual), much of the product earmarked for mince pies and plum puddings wound up on the black market. And mince itself could be retooled as a camouflaged liquor-delivery medium: In 1919 the Chicago Tribune reported that the average alcohol content of canned mince samples on display at a trade show for the hotel business had spiked to 14.12 percent, offering a far more efficient buzz than legal near beer, with its measly .5 percent.”Source: The Chicago Reader
4. There’s a murder linked to mince pies.
Albert Allen from Chicago was arrested in 1907, having shot his wife in the head. His court plea:
“I ate three pieces of mince pie at 11 o’clock and got to dreaming that I was shaking dice. The other fellow was cheating and I tried to shoot his fingers off. When I awoke, I was holding the pistol in my hand and my wife was shot.”Source: IndyWeek.com
5. It’s estimated that around 1 billion (!!) mince pies are consumed by Brits every year.
Famous cake bakers, Konditor, surveyed 2000 UK adults and got the following results:
- Approx 1,045,000,000 mince pies were consumed in the UK in 2020.
- 52.8% think mince pies should be a year-round treat.
- Brits love to scoff down a mince pie with 37.2% taking 30 seconds or less to finish one off.
6. The biggest mince pie ever made was 20 x 5 ft and weighed over 1 tonne.
Yet to be beaten, the record was set in 1932 and was baked in a bespoke tin (you don’t say…).
According to local newspaper, the Nottingham Journal, the ingredients included:
- 220lb suet
- 160lb sugar
- Over 1 million currants (how the hell do you count 1 million currants?)
- 1.5 gallons of rum
The best homemade mince pie recipe.
Homemade or shop-bought, mince pies are one of my favourite Christmas treats. Honestly, I think supermarkets should sell them all year round. But it’s probably best for me that they don’t.
If you’ve been here for a while, you’ll know that for me, baking in Germany is a nightmare. But the following is my favourite mince pie recipe, and I managed to successfully bake these in Germany! I even found the mincemeat online!
Anyway, I’ll bow out now with my favourite recipe for homemade mince pies, straight from BBC Good Food (via Mr Paul Hollywood himself).