Thursday, 16 December 2010

December - mince pies

They've been on sale since well before the beginnning of December and every year I try not to sample any before the first Sunday in Advent.

Jesus' head is just visible on the top of this mince pie
Mince pies were often known as Christmas pies. They were banned in the seventeenth century by that killjoy Cromwell. In his History of the Rebellion, Marchamont Needham wrote "All Plums the Prophets Sons defy, And Spice-broths are too hot; Treason's in a December-Pye, And Death within the Pot. Mince pies eventually made a come-back after the Restoration.

Mince pies are made with mincemeat – which doesn’t contain meat at all nowadays. The original ingredients can be traced back to the 13th century, when returning European crusaders brought with them Middle Eastern recipes containing meats, fruits and spices. The early mince pie was commonly known as Christmas Pye, Crib Pie or Manger Pie. These oblong, oval, or square pies represented the cradle of Jesus. On the top of each pie, there was pastry figure of the baby Jesus which the children of the house would remove and eat. The Crib Pie was filled with various meats such as chicken, partridge, pigeon, pheasant, rabbit, ox or rabbit tongue or even animal livers mixed with the dried fruits, fruit peel, sugar, and spices of the mincemeat. Cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg were the three spices used to represent the three gifts given to the baby Jesus by the Magi. Tradition also says that one pie should be eaten on each of the 12 days of Christmas, ending on Epiphany (6th of January) to bring good luck (and extra inches to the hips) for the rest of the year.

Home-made mincemeat
People began to prepare the fruit and spice filling months before it was required, storing it in jars, and by the Victorian era the addition of meat had, for many, become an afterthought. The sweet, rich and fruity pies with which we are now familiar developed early in the twentieth century, when the meat content was removed. Today's 'mincemeat' is a mixture of dried fruit (raisins, sultanas, candied peel) apples, spices, sugar and suet, often moistened with brandy or sherry, and baked in small pastry cases.

If the mincemeat is home-made everyone in the household should stir it as this is considered lucky. The cases should be oval or square in shape, to represent the manger, with a tiny pastry baby Jesus on top, but as very few people have tins that shape they are nearly always round and the baby has been replaced by a star.

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