What do you picture when you think of Christmas? Is it footprints left in freshly fallen snow and snow men with button eyes and a carrot nose? Is it Santa and sleigh bells and eight famous reindeer? Or is it surrounded by family, cosied up in front of a crackling fire, sipping a rich hot chocolate and munching on a warm mince pie?
Christmas food is steeped in tradition - from the turkey and the stuffing that is served at Christmas dinner, to the Christmas cake and mulled wine that follows. A famous English Christmas dinner scene can even be found in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843), where Scrooge sends Bob Cratchitt a large turkey to enjoy once he has had his epiphany.
But how did the humble mince pie become such a staple part of Christmas?
It's hard to believe that these deliciously sweet and buttery bakes had not such indulgent beginnings. Dating back to the Middle Ages, the original mince pie (formerly, 'Christmas Pie', amongst other names) typically featured more savoury ingredients - a mix of minced meat (including mutton, rabbit, pork or game), suet, a range of fruits and several different spices. The mince pie proved to not only be nutritiously dense, but also became a good way of preserving meat, without the need for salting, curing, smoking or drying it.
The mince pie only actually began to get sweeter in the 18th Century, when cheap sugar arrived from slave plantations in the West Indies, and by the 19th Century, the mince pie had acquired its modern taste.
Due to the meat and fats in the original mince pie mixture, these made the perfect meal for the long, dark winter months. A mince pie could not only endure the test of time as the pie itself acted as a preservative for the meat, but it was also a hearty, wholesome meal that provided much needed energy to survive.
The mix of spices used (typically nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon) is also said to be symbolic of the gifts given to the Baby Jesus by the three wise men in Bethlehem. Whilst we know the modern mince pie to be dainty finger food in neat, foil tart cases, traditionally these pies were made into large oblong shapes, representing Jesus' manger, and even occasionally featured a small depiction of Jesus himself in pastry form on top.
Furthermore, the mincemeat would often be made on stir-up Sunday - along with the Christmas pudding - the last Sunday before Advent. If you're superstitious, be sure to stir your mincemeat in the correct direction, as it's thought that stirring the mincemeat anti-clockwise will lead to misfortune and bad luck during the following year.
In contrast, good luck and happiness could be had by all by ensuring that each each member of the family consumed one pie each day over the Twelve Days of Christmas (Christmas Eve to January 5th).
The modern mince pie features meat no more, but instead, is a combination of sweet and fruity mincemeat (made from dried mixed fruit, mixed spice and often a hint of booze) encased in crumbly shortcrust pastry and can be served on its own, or alongside fresh whipped cream, brandy butter, a scoop of ice cream or lashings of creamy custard.
It is still a keen tradition for children to leave Father Christmas a mince pie (or two) and a glass of milk by the fireplace - plus, a carrot for Rudolph… of course.
For a fun festive activity that all the family can enjoy, try making your own mince pies this year with our delicious recipes. Choose from Filo Mince Pie Crackers, Sponge Topped Mince Pies or Mince Pie Ice Cream - we'd recommend all three!
Whilst we've put a slight twist on these bakes to make them more exciting, if you fancy something a little more traditional, simply make our Sweet Mincemeat filling, cut out pastry cases from homemade or shop bought pastry, top with pastry lids and bake in the oven till golden brown.
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