Mincemeat Pies ~ A Regency Christmas Essential
A Regency Era Christmas centered on food and dining with family, much as it does today. For the dinner entrée, the cook would include goose, pheasant, venison, or a beef haunch. Turkeys and other foul might be served, but not as the main meat focal point. If fortunate they would snag a boar’s head with fresh rosemary and basil adorning his head, and an apple in his mouth, served on a silver platter.
Whatever the household choice for menu, one essential item for a complete and proper Regency Christmas meal would be a mincemeat pie.
Mincing up meat and placing the bits into stews or pies is as old as time, primarily as an economical way to use the leftovers. The Christmas pie (mincemeat pie) originated with the Crusaders in the 11th Century. The spices brought back to England – cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg – were symbolic of the Magi gifts to the Christ child. In honor of His birth, the pies of sweetly spiced meats were baked into small oblong shaped pastries indicative of a cradle. Now, to be fair, there are some who refute this story. However, there are far more references stating this as the origination. Whatever the case, these pies have always been associated with Christmas and the Epiphany, and it is still considered lucky to eat one on each of the 12 days of Christmas. They were often called “wayfarer pies” because they were given to holiday travelers or as gifts while visiting.
The meat varied, was sweetly flavored and steeped in liquor, usually brandy. In 1657 the Puritan Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, banned Christmas entirely as a “pagan holiday not sanctioned by the Bible and promoting gluttony and drunkenness.” Mincemeat pie was specifically banned, along with other traditional Christmas fare. Soldiers were ordered to roam the streets searching for any sign of Christmas. Foods being cooked to celebrate were taken by force! Some references suspect that the odd shapes given to the pies evolved as a way to hide what they were. Sounds nice! Fortunately King Charles II restored Christmas in 1660. The banner image above is an assortment of mincemeat pies from traditional recipes dating 1670 to 1870.
Over time the meat declined as the main ingredient in favor of fruits in a brandied suet. During the Regency meat would have been a prominent ingredient, but by the late 19th century meat was rarely found in a mincemeat pie. In fact, today it is most commonly just called a “mince pie.” Recipes are plentiful. Here is a traditional Medieval one that I found, if you are brave enough to give it a go.
2 pounds lean stew beef, mutton, venison, etc.
1-1/2 c suet or bacon grease
4 c apples, peeled, cored, and chopped
2-1/2 c raisins
1-1/2 c currants, chopped
2-1/2 c sugar
3 c pie cherries
1-1/2 pints strong cold coffee
1 pint cider or brandy
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
6 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cloves
1 Tbsp. mace
1 Tbsp. allspice
Cook meat until tender. In large pan, add all ingredients except meat and simmer for 30 minutes. Add meat and stir well. Place in pie shell and top with pastry crust. Bake at 350° for 45 minutes to 1 hr, or until the pastry is golden brown and the filling set. Serve hot or cold.
Mrs. Beeton’s 1861 recipe does not mention the coffee or cherries, but rather adds candied lemon peel and citrus pieces. That sounds yummy too! But as I said, a simple Google search will yield dozens of recipes, with and without meat.