“Why is it called mincemeat when it doesn’t contain meat,” is a question that every child in Wales asks at this time of year. The Welsh consume mince pies by the million every December. In our family, we say that eating more than 24 mince pies in December before Christmas day will bring good luck in the new year, Christmas being the time of year when lying to your kids is considered cute.
There’s a simple reason why it’s called mincemeat. This is a recipe thanks to www.PictureBritain.com, based on surviving recipes from the sixteenth century – that is, the Tudor era. This is certainly not what ordinary Welsh peasants would have eaten at Christmas. Sugar and spices cost a fortune! But when the poet Iolo Goch wrote of the lavish hospitality of Owain Glyndwr, this is the sort of thing that Owain probably served his guests at Christmas. At a time when peasants subsisted almost entirely on fruit and vegetables, even the nobility often did not eat meat daily; and when dried fruits like figs and spices like cinnamon had to be imported from afar and were consequently far beyond the ordinary person’s ability to afford, the combination must have seemed fabulously luxurious and exotic.
The flavour is odd by today’s standards, it must be said; not unpleasant, but the idea of mixing beef with sweet spices is anathema according to twenty-first century culinary expectations. Our family found it immensely heavy and rich – one serving spoon each was enough to leave us stuffed. My wife couldn’t finish hers. My feeling of this recipe is that it could use less meat, and more fruit – that, of course, is the line of thinking that led to today’s mincemeat, which is all fruit, sugar and suet, and no meat!
The pastry was not intended to be eaten. Renaissance people did not generally use cooking utensils, apart from pots suspended over a fire, and a roasting spit. The idea was to scoop the mincemeat from the case (known as a coffin), which was often elaborately shaped and decorated. Henry VIII is known to have been served pies shapes like castles, complete with battlements. There does exist even a set of instructions for enclosing birds in a pie, and keeping them alive, so that they would fly out when the pie was cut open – which adds meaning to the nursery rhyme: “Four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.”
We need to bear in mind that, in the 1500’s, cooking was more an art than a science. Precise measurements, temperatures and cooking times were not typically used. Instead, it was left to the cook’s taste and expertise, who would throw in not a cup of raisins, but as many as she felt were necessary, having a taste and adding a few more if necessary, always on the principle that is still thrashed into chefs today: “You can always add more. You cannot take away.”
Suet is the fat from a pig’s kidneys. It’s readily obtainable in Wales, stocked by every grocery store, and with a vegetarian imitation also available. The brand leader is Atora, advertised with the slogan “Atora Suet Can Do It!” Elsewhere in the world, however, suet is almost impossible to find. If necessary, a good quality lard, such as goose fat, makes an adequate substitute.
My first observation was that, without modern labour-saving gadgets, it’s a lot of work. It’s all very well writing “Crush the prunes and apples into a paste,” but when you’re sitting there with a pestle and mortar, you’re going to be pounding messily for a very long time. Much easier to throw them in the blender! Likewise, trying to stir everything by hand is going to give your arm muscles the soundest workout they’ve had all year. Just use a mixer. It’s no wonder there’s a popular image of the medieval cook as a large, beefy woman. Cooking was hard, aerobic exertion!
My second is that making the pastry case is a great family activity. My eight-year-old had a load of fun building, sealing and decorating the case. Sadly, neither her nor my artistic skills are up to making a castle complete with battlements, or even a dragon, which is what I should have liked to do, in honour of Owain Glyndwr.
The pastry is an excellent modelling material! You can prepare it in advance and leave it to stand. It will go hard, but can easily be kneaded back into a putty-like consistency.
I found it was best to build up the case in strips, sealed with water. Little holes and gaps can be easily filled by rubbing with a wet finger, adding a little extra pastry is the hole is a big one. Finally, you use the leftovers to construct decorations, which we coloured with yellow food dye, and into which my daughter carved swirling designs with a sharp knife. Once moulded, the case then becomes hard again, and can be easily carried to the oven. However, it does leak a lot of fat during the cooking process, so you’d be wise to put a lipped baking sheet under it to catch the drips.
For the pastry
3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 cup lard / vegetable shortening
1 cup water
Sift together the flour and the salt while heating the lard and water together until the lard has melted. Do not allow it to boil.
Pour the warm liquid into the flour and mix together.
Use about 1/3 of the pastry to roll out into a base about ½ inch thick. Roll out the remainder and cut into strips. Wetting the edges with water, build these strips into walls, sealing the gaps by rubbing with a wet finger.
For the filling
1 lb ground beef, cooked
½ lb suet
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp pepper
1/ tsp salt
2 egg yolks
2 tbsp sugar
Lemon peel, finely minced
8 prunes, finely minced
2 cups apples, minced
¼ cup raisins, finely minced
3 dates, finely minced
Tip the suet into the cooked beef and squeeze them together into a thick, heavy paste.
Mix the salt and spices into the meat and suet paste (trust me, you want a mixer for this bit, unless you missed doing your triceps in your workout this morning)
Mash together the egg yolks, vanilla extract and sugar, then mix into the meat paste. Then add the peel, prunes, and apples, mashed together.
Tip it into your pastry coffin, and scatter the fried fruit and dates over the top (I forgot the dried fruit until after we’d sealed it, and had to cut a hole in the top to add them!)
Placed a lid over the top, decorate (if you fancy making a castle, you might want to double the quantity of pastry), stand on a cookie sheet, and bake at 350F (177C) for 45 minutes. Serve cold.