Growing up in England, one of my strongest associations with feasting at Christmas includes mince pies! These days I make my own mincemeat and tend to experiment with different variations every year. Although the recipes generally include a mix of fruit, dried fruit and spices, one of the beauties of modern mincemeat is that it is extremely flexible and forgiving. Some years, I have been ambitious enough to make candied peel from scratch. Not this year, however! Still, regardless of how it evolves, mincemeat with its distinct taste and aroma will always be a holiday favourite of mine.
Considering the sweet and spicy taste of today’s mincemeat, it is hard to imagine that it was first developed as an alternative way to preserve meat without salt or smoke. In reality, most of us have probably never tasted authentic mincemeat which would contain, as well as suet and spices, more meat than fruit. Although these days I don’t add suet, its purpose is to contribute to preserving the mincemeat for long-term storage as well as acting as a binder and adding flavor and texture.
Origins of mincemeat
According to Mincemeat Pie History, the Crusaders returned from the Holy Land around the 12th century with a variety of oriental spices. This resulted in cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg being added to mincemeat to represent the three gifts given to the Christ child by the Magi. In addition, the mince pie was originally made in an oblong cradle shape with a place for the baby Jesus to lie on top. At the appropriate time, the children removed the baby and the “manger pie” was eaten in celebration.
Ben Panko’s article, the History of Mince Pies talks about the long shared history of religion and mince pies. From the days of these early crusaders, he refers to mincemeat pies becoming a dish associated mainly with festivities. During the twelve days of Christmas, historian Katherine Clements explains that wealthy rulers would put on massive feasts including expensive dishes of meat and fruit, such as the mincemeat pie, as it was a great way for people to show off their status.
The fall and rise of mincemeat
However, during the era of Cromwell’s Puritan-dominated parliament, he was apparently irked by such extravagance and the accompanying “raucous feasting and celebration”. In an effort to put a damper on Christmas celebrations in England, treats which were considered “gluttonous” such as mince pies were banned. Fortunately, for anyone who covets a good mince pie at Christmas, this ban was rescinded when Charles II assumed control of England and as a result it is no longer illegal to indulge in such acts of feasting!
As fruits and spices became more plentiful in the 17th century, the meat of mincemeat was gradually reduced, and the fruit and spiciness of the pies increased accordingly making them more like today’s mince pies. Along with this change, the pies also shrank in size, becoming more like individual treats. Although, many modern recipes contain only fruit, like many of the traditional Christmas fares, a healthy splash of liquor is often a welcome addition.
Recipe for Mincemeat
This recipe is inspired by Virtual Vegan and it is the first mincemeat recipe I have tried that is baked in the oven rather than using the stove-top method. Using this method, the slow cooking of the mincemeat fills the kitchen with the familiar and delicious aroma of dried fruit and spices. The recipe is flexible and you can mix up your choices of dried fruit and as long as there is a total of about 6 cups, it can also include more exotic fruits like dried blueberries and cherries.
- 1 slightly heaped cup raisins
- 1 slightly heaped cup sultanas
- 1 slightly rounded cup currants
- 1 slightly rounded cup dried cranberries
- 3/4 cup dried apricots
- 3/4 cup dried figs, chopped
- 1/2 cup candied peel
- 1 cup slivered almonds (optional)
- 2 lemons zest and juice
- 2 small oranges zest and juice
- 1 large apple, grated
- 1½ cups coconut sugar or brown sugar
- 3 teaspoons ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 2 teaspoons fresh rosemary chopped finely
- 1.5 cups port, brandy, rum or sherry (for an alcohol free version use unsweetened apple juice instead)
- Set oven to 200°F (93 °C)
- Put all of the ingredients, except the port, in a large ovenproof bowl or casserole and mix together well.
- Cover tightly with tin foil or a lid and place in the oven. Leave to warm in the oven for 90 minutes.
- Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
- Add the port and stir really well.
- Transfer the mixture into clean jars.
Notes on Storing Mincemeat:
Store jars of vegan mincemeat in the fridge for up to 4 weeks. If using alcohol you can store it for extended periods and if you want to store it for up to a year or more then sterilize the jars. The mincemeat does improve with time. If you use apple juice you will need to use the mincemeat within 4 weeks or freeze it.
How to sterilize jars – Wash the jars in very hot soapy water, rinse off the residue in hot water and place on a metal baking tray in a 350°F (175 °C) oven for 10 minutes. Remove them from the oven and fill the jars with the mincemeat immediately while they are still hot and seal tightly with a lid. Store in a cool dark place.
To freeze – Mincemeat can also be frozen for up to 6 months in an airtight container or freezer bag. Be sure to cool it completely first. Defrost mincemeat in the fridge overnight.
Over the years, the traditional mincemeat pie has gone by many names including “shred pie,” “mutton pie,” and “Christmas pye”. The original classic elements of mincemeat which could include goose, venison, beef, seasonal apples, dried fruit, cider, molasses, and candied peel would certainly make a hearty pie. Although I am intrigued by the original version, I definitely enjoy the distinct sweet and fruity version that is popular today.
The Crusaders seem to have had the right idea as according to the Mincemeat Pie History they considered it “to be lucky to eat one mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas, ending with Epiphany on the 6th of January”. With the rich and colourful history of mincemeat, taking the time to savour a mince pie every day definitely seems like a custom worth continuing, especially since this was a dish that was almost lost in time. It not only offers the opportunity to savour a long-standing festive tradition but also enables us to appreciate the fact that today, due to a turn of events in history, we have the choice!