Britain: Old-Fashioned Mincemeat for Mince Pies

Of many traditional foods eaten in the islands comprising Great Britain and Ireland, mincemeat is possibly the one that now least resembles the form in which it originally became popular... especially since, despite its name, it rarely has meat in it any more.

It started being eaten in these islands as a fad food, brought home by returning Crusaders who'd picked up a taste for the spices and food styles they'd spent some years ingesting in the Middle East. The cuisines of the Islamic empires of the 1000's to 1200's included many dishes in which meat and fruit occurred together, and normally included what we now think of as "sweet" spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, and various others now almost exclusively used in Western cooking for desserts.

In the centuries that followed, the British wholeheartedly embraced this new style of cooking, especially those who could afford the spices on which it depended and could therefore use such dishes as a way to show off to neighbors and friends. And the heavy and sometimes near-encyclopedic spicing was never (contrary to some assertions by confused food writers) a way to attempt to hide "bad meat": the spices involved were way too expensive to waste on something like that. Dishes of this kind were a delicacy, one that kings weren't ashamed to eat, and the popular passion for them lasted for hundreds of years.

Indeed both King Henry V and King Henry VIII were fond of mincemeat, especially when presented as a pie. (Though it might be fair, especially looking at Henry the Eighth's later portraits, to ask whether there were any foods he wasn't fond of.) It even turned up at Henry V's coronation. One recipe dating from a hundred or so years further on looks like this:

To make Pyes - Pyes of mutton or beif must be fyne mynced and ceasoned wyth pepper and salte, and a lyttle saffron to coloure it, suet or marrow a good quantite, a lyttle vyneger, prunes, greate raysins and dates, take the fattest of the broathe of powdred beyfe, and yf you wyll have paest royall, take butter and yolkes of egges and so tempre the flowre to make the paeste.

-- "paste royal" being a high-quality short pastry possibly referred to here as royal as much due to its golden color as to any possibility that a peckish king might be wandering through the neighborhood. (Though granted, in those days you never could tell. A side note: "powdred beef" meant spiced beef -- still eaten in Ireland at the Christmas and New Year's holidays today: the broth would have been the water it was cooked in, not the brine it was originally cured in.)

But there you have the basic list of ingredients: local fruits, usually dried, coarsely chopped together with cuts of meat or poultry, liberally seasoned with spices such as cinnamon (and savory spices too, like pepper), often dosed with sherry, spirits or wine, and then baked in a crust. Over the following centuries, tastes began to change, and the British national food preference started to slide away from the enjoyment of sweet and savory ingredients in the same dish. Gradually -- assisted by external forces such as economic slumps and wartime rationing, and even once briefly driven underground during that bizarre period during which Oliver Cromwell outlawed Christmas -- the meat and the savory seasonings fell out of the mincemeat recipe, until all we now have left in the commercial form of the ingredient is suet and fruit, and (if you're lucky) some brandy. But most of the time the effect, when baked, is an oversweet little pie that's dull and safe enough to leave out for Santa on Christmas Eve (and this is indeed the fate of many a mini-mince pie in Great Britain on that night). It's kind of sad to see a complex and robust dish on which royalty once chowed down reduced to such a state.

The following recipe is a great evocation of the original mincemeat of Medieval and Renaissance times. Please be warned: this recipe involves a fair amount of work. It makes a lot of mincemeat. And it will not be ready (if you make it now) until next Christmas: it needs time to age. But if you make it, it will keep happily for years in the back of your fridge or a cool larder, getting better and better all the time. (EuroCuisineLady finished the last of a batch several years ago: it was then eight years old and splendid beyond belief.)

This recipe is adapted from one in the cookbook American Charcuterie: Recipes from Pig-By-The-Tail by Victoria Wise.

Ingredients:

  • 5 pounds beef shank with marrow
  • 1 beef heart, about 2 1/2 pounds, skinned of fat and unsightly vessels and cut into 1/4 inch dice
  • 1 1/2 pounds suet, chopped
  • 1 pound dried currants
  • 1 pound golden raisins
  • 1/2 pound citron, chopped
  • 2 pounds candied citrus peel, chopped
  • 2 cups dark molasses
  • 1 pound brown sugar
  • 1 quart (alcoholic) sparkling cider, preferably French
  • 3 pounds Pippin, Granny Smyth, or other tart apple, cored and cut into 142 inch dice
  • 2 quinces, cored and cut into 1/4 inch dice
  • 1 tablespoon ground mace
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons ground allspice
  • 2 tablespoons white pepper
  • 1 fifth of brandy (second fifth optional for topping up the mincemeat after putting it in the storage jars)

Place the beef shanks on a baking sheet and roast in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes. Remove and cool enough to handle. Cut the meat into 1/4 inch dice, remove the marrow. Place both in a large pot.

Add the heart, suet, currants, raisins, citron, candied peel, molasses, brown sugar, and cider. Set heat to medium-low and bring to a boil, stirring frequently, Lower heat and cook while preparing the apples and quinces.

Add the apples and quinces, along with the spices and brandy. Stir well, lower the heat, put a flametamer or similar heat control device under the pot, and simmer very slowly for three hours, stirring frequently.

Meanwhile wash well at least half a dozen large Mason jars or similar storage containers. (We used Paul Masson wine carafes for this: they worked very well.) Scald them out with boiling water and allow them to dry upside down on a clean dishtowel: do the same with their lids. When the mincemeat is finished cooking, has been removed from the heat, and has cooled down to the point where it is merely warm, scald out the containers one more time. Then pack the mincemeat into the containers (not pressing it down unnecessarily) until they are just about full. If by chance you have another bottle of the brandy you used in the recipe, you might like to top the mincemeat containers up with it before sealing them.

Put the jars in a fridge or cool dark pantry and leave them strictly alone for at least a year. The longer you can stay out of them, the better the mincemeat will get.

Use this mixture in your normal mince pie / mincemeat pie recipe, stand back, and wait for the compliments.

(US readers, please note: the British mince pie is normally small, just about cupcake size -- not like the full-size mincemeat pies that many US families enjoy for either Thanksgiving or Christmas. You can come close to the British Christmas-Eve mince pie this way:)

Little Mince Pies

Find a good piecrust recipe, roll it out thin, and cut circles out of it big enough to line each of the cups of a muffin or cupcake pan. Fill each cup about three-quarters-full of the mincemeat mixture, top with a circle of piecrust and seal the edges. Cut a few gashes into the top of each little pie so that the filling can "breathe" while baking: sprinkle with granulated sugar, and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 - 20 minutes or until nicely brown. Serve, and enjoy!

 

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