I’m proposing a little mince meat for Christmas.
Mince pie is a traditional Christmas treat in England, but for some
unfathomable reason (it’s absolutely delicious), it doesn’t
seem to have caught on much in this country. A dab of whipped double
cream, or, better yet, brandy butter, and it’s nectar from the
Like most of our Christmas traditions, its roots lie
in medieval Europe. Christmas was a huge feast then, but only gradually
did certain foods become associated especially with it: Christmas dinner
was like every other dinner, only bigger. Mince pie was eaten year round,
but it became one of the first Christmas dishes. For Christmas it was
made in oblong earthenware dishes about 6 or 8 inches long and 2 or
3 inches wide that symbolized Jesus’ crib. The spices -- cloves,
mace and saffron -- represented the gifts given by the Magi. In a largely
illiterate society, people were far more adept than we at recognizing
symbols and extracting their full meaning. Mince pie was as rich in
significance as it was in taste.
If I’ve whetted your appetite, and I’ve
certainly whetted mine, we might turn together to a book published in
1591 and charmingly titled A Book of Cookrye Very Necessary for all
such as delight therein. Like most cook books of the period, it assumed
that cooks were experts who knew what they doing, and didn’t need
pedantically precise measurements and cooking times.
For Pyes of Mutton or Beefe: Shred your meat and Suet
together fine, season it with cloves, mace, Pepper, and some Saffron,
great Raisins, Corance (currants) and prunes, and so put it in your
Much lies behind this apparently simple recipe. In
a Tudor nobleman’s house, the Serjeant of the Accatry was responsible
for bringing the mutton of beef from the lord’s pastures. He passed
them to the Serjeant of the Larder, whose Yeoman of the Boiling House
boiled them as required. The Serjeant of the Bakehouse relied upon the
Yeoman Garnetor to supply the flour and corn for the breads and pastries
which were carried to the bakehouse by the Yeomen Pervayers.
Now, times have changed. In our house, Lisa does all
that herself, unless she sends me to the grocery store when I become,
I assume, the Serjeant of the Shopping Cart, but once I load the bags
into the car, I get demoted to a mere Yeoman Pervayer. But whatever
minor role I may play, Lisa makes an excellent Serjeant of the Larder:
born to the job, she was.
Elizabethan cooking was child’s play compared
to the serving, whose full ceremonial would take till next Christmas
to explain. To give an instance, in the Queen’s household, which
everyone tried to emulate, the serving ceremonials included an unmarried
lady dressed in white silk who prostrated herself three times and, in
the most graceful manner, approached the table where she rubbed the
plates with bread and salt. Volunteers, please?
No, I think we’ll stick to the mince pie, pure
and simple. And because we’re simple folk, we’ll follow
a modernized recipe. But we’ll eat it with full medieval gusto:
no change there.
Tudor Mince Pie
1-1/2 lb ground beef or lamb
4 oz suet
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp black pepper
1 tsp ground mace
pinch of saffron
2 oz raisins
2 oz currants
2 oz pitted prunes, chopped
1 tbsp each of butter, sugar and rosewater melted together.
Mix together all the ingredients of the pie.
Line an 8-inch baking tin with pastry. Pack the pie
mixture in and dampen the edges of the pastry wall. Make a round lid
of pastry and press firmly in place, cut a hole in the center of the
lid, and decorate with the trimmed pieces of pastry.
Bake in the center of the oven for 15 minutes at 450
degrees, then reduce to 350 degrees and bake for 1-3/4 hours.
Remove the sides of the tin, brush with the glaze and
return to the oven for 15 minutes. Serve cold.