Traditional foods are an important part of any celebration. Every family and every culture has certain dishes that speak of holidays and festivities would be incomplete without them. This was as true in the Regency era as it is today.
During the Regency, most also considered mince meat pies, also known as Christmas or Twelfth Night pies staples for a Christmas feast and the whole of Christmastide.
These pies can be traced back to the 13th century when crusaders returned with Middle Eastern recipes featuring meat, fruit and spices together. Mixing meat with fruit and spices helped preserve the meat without smoke, drying or salt.
In the 15th century, King Henry V served a mincemeat pie at his coronation. King Henry VIII liked his Christmas pie to be a main-dish pie filled with mincemeat.
Originally the mince pies were oblong or oval; the pastry crust tended to sink in the middle resembling Jesus’ manger. Sometimes a small doll was made from pastry and placed in the center. These were known as crib pies. In the 1600’s, the pies became circular, though they might be as large as 20 lbs. In the intervening centuries they have become smaller.
These well-loved treats were, for a time, stigmatized by the Puritans. During Cromwell's rule as Lord Protector in the mid 1600's, his council banned the celebration of Christmas as it was not sanctioned in the bible. Puritans frowned on rich food and alcoholic drink. Minced pie represented both and was not considered fit to occupy a clergyman's plate. A 1656 satire called 'Christmas Day' calls them 'Idolatrie in a Crust'. Following Cromwell's death, Christmas celebrations, including minced pie, returned in force.
Leftovers from the Christmas feast would be used to make pies for the twelve days until Epiphany. Pies could be made up shortly after the feast and could last up to two months, if the weather were cold. Recipes varied by region, but usually included beef, poultry and other meats, suet, sugar, raisins or currants, spices, orange and lemon peel, eggs, apples and brandy. When making the minced-meat filling, custom says it should be stirred it only clockwise because stirring it counterclockwise would bring bad luck for the coming year. Tradition says that the filling should include cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg to represent the gifts of the Magi to the infant Jesus. Similarly, a star shaped bit of pastry should top the pie for the star of Bethlehem.
Eating minced pie every day of the twelve days of Christmas was said to bring twelve months of happiness in the new year. To strengthen the charm, the pies must be baked by the dozen and offered by friends. Other traditions suggest while eating the first mince pie of the season, the eater should make a wish make a wish and that mince pies should be eaten in silence.
Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery (1747) offered this recipe for Minced Pie.
To make Mince-Pies the best way
TAKE three pounds of suet shred very fine, and chopped as small as possible; two pounds of raisins stoned, and chopped as fine as possible; two pounds of currants nicely picked, washed, rubbed, and dried at the fire; half a hundred of fine pippins, pared, cored, and chopped small; half a pound of fine sugar pounded fine; a quarter of an ounce of mace, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, two large nutmegs, all beat fine; put all together into a great pan, and mix it well together with half a pint of brandy, and half a pint of sack; put it down close in a stone pot, and it will keep good four months.
When you make your pies, take a little dish, something bigger than a soup plate, lay a very thin crust all over it, lay a thin layer of meat, and then a thin layer of citron cut very thin, then a layer of mince-meat, and a layer of orange-peel cut thin, over that a little meat, squeeze half the juice of a fine Seville orange or lemon, lay on your crust, and bake it nicely.
These pies eat finely cold. If you make them in little patties, mix your meat and sweet-meats accordingly. If you choose meat in your pies, parboil a neat's tongue, peel it, and chop the meat as fine as possible, and mix with the rest; or two pounds of the inside of a sirloin of beef boiled. But you must double the quantity of fruit when you use meat.~Hannah Glasse
ReferencesA Regency Christmas By Kieran Hazzard ©2013 2nd Bn. 95th Rifles
Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. (1784) London
Hale, Mrs. Sarah J. Morton, M. Michael And Louis A. Godey. Lady's Book, Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, Publishers' Hall, Dec. 1860.
Hirst, Christopher. Sweet delight: A brief history of the mince pie
History of Mince Pie
The History of Mince Pie
Jane Austen and Christmas: The Christmas Eve Dinner at Randalls
Jones, Callie . The mince pie in history, myth and law
Rundell, Eliza. A New System of Domestic Cookery. (1814)
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