If there is one thing the UK likes to consume with abundance during the festive season…that is, apart from misguided alcohol concoctions only socially acceptable during yuletide, it is buttery, liqueur lashed mouthfuls of mince pie. Trying to explain the distinctly British infatuation to almost anyone who is not from the ancestral home of the much-beloved pud, is, as I have experienced, a bit of a hard-sell. But like your determined door-to-door salesman, I won’t be giving up too quickly to try and convince you into loving our quintessentially Christmas concoction.
Heated up for mere minutes and partnered with generous dollops of brandy butter, or just devoured cold straight out of the packet (of course, they can be made from scratch, but the estimated 370 million mince pies sold each year in the UK is perhaps testament to how infrequent we actually do this, however much we moan about shop-bought ones). Ultimately, us Brits aren’t too fussed, as long as they are available at our fingertips throughout the season.
Samuel Pepys thought so too, if his diaries are anything to go by: ‘A mess of brave plum-porridge and a roasted pullet for dinner, and I sent for a mince pie abroad’ and Dickens didn’t mind them either, giving them a notable mention in ‘A Christmas Carol’. Not loved so much though, by the Puritans during Oliver Cromwell’s reign over England, supposedly. Whilst they did not directly point the finger at these boozy baked goods, they did zealously oppose what they deemed as gluttonous godless additions associated with Catholic idolatries, including Christmas itself. The legendary myth goes that this led the spiced treats to become illegal, but alas, as deliciously scandalous the tale may be, the pie was never in fact, political.
These days, your typical mince pie is stuffed with a fragrant filling of citrussy dried fruits aplenty (this is what is known as the ‘mincemeat’), a few lashings of brandy or black rum is thrown in for good measure, then the contents are safely encased in a soft pastry crust. However, in days of yore, (until the 19th century) the pie took a decidedly meaty turn: a pastry filled with spiced ox tongue and beef suet, if you must know.
You can attribute this to the Crusaders in the 12th century, who whilst making the decision to sack Constantinople, also decided to bring back a few spices from the Middle East. This was how the spices used in mince pies: cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, previously known for their embalming qualities, became synonymous with Christmas (symbolic of the gifts provided by the three wise men), and for a time, emblematic of conspicuous consumption. Think the gilded, intoxicating excess of the golden Twenties à la Fitzgerald’s’ Gatsby: provided by champagne socialists of the 15th and 16th century, and you’ve got it. Indeed, ostentatious displays of wealth and opulence were demonstrated through the bounty of these then rare and exotic spices one ordered for festive feasts.
Sweet or savoury, our beloved pie has been somewhat a chameleon over the course of time, but one thing hasn’t changed: the British overwhelming fondness for them.
Written by Mairead Finlay – Communication Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg). She has studied Translation at the University of Geneva and holds a BA in Politics and French from the University of Bristol.