The se­cret life of mince pies

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Noth­ing says Christ­mas quite like a mince pie. Each ex­quis­ite dol­lop of liquor-plumped fruit sur­rounded by crisp but­tery pas­try brings out the finest of fes­tive feel­ings. But there is much more to mince pies than meets the eye. And not all of it is sweet­ness and light. In fact, al­most none of it fits in with the peace, love and fa la la la la theme that is gen­er­ally felt to de­fine the Christ­mas spirit.

Mince pies have been through the wars. Lit­er­ally. For some­thing so sweet, there is a lot of bit­ter­ness packed into their his­tory. The orig­i­nal mince pies were savoury and can be traced back to 13th-cen­tury Eng­land when European crusaders re­turned from their mur­der­ous trav­els to the Mid­dle East with recipes that mixed meat, fruit and spice. All the early English recipes call for equal parts of minced cooked mut­ton, beef suet, cur­rants and raisins with gin­ger, mace, nut­meg, cin­na­mon, or­ange rind and salt. They sound more like a Moroc­can pastilla or even a South African bobotie than the lit­tle sugar-dusted tart we know to­day. Dur­ing the English Civil War, pu­ri­tan ex­trem­ists ar­gued that the shape of a mince pie re­sem­bled Christ’s crib and to make or con­sume such Catholic idol­a­try was a sin. Pie per­se­cu­tion was ram­pant and, at its height, the sale of mince pies was an of­fence pun­ish­able with flog­ging.

Mince pies only lost their meaty fill­ings and be­came a sweet dessert of­fer­ing in the 18th cen­tury, when cheap sugar made its way to Eng­land from the slave plan­ta­tions of the West Indies. To­day, some tra­di­tion­al­ists still add beef suet to their recipes, but even this is in­creas­ingly left out by cooks un­nerved by the idea of in­clud­ing the fat found around a cow’s vis­cera in their favourite fes­tive food.

Purists in­sist that only a home-made mince pie will do. En­er­getic souls can try chef Jackie Cameron’s de­li­cious recipe, avail­able at The chef­pa­tronne of the Jackie Cameron School of Food & Wine in Hil­ton, KwaZulu-Natal, adds Van der Hum liqueur and brandy to her sweet treats. And jolly nice it is too.

For those who have had a long, hard year and just want to buy their baked goods, I have eaten my way through a moun­tain of shop-bought mince pies to iden­tify the best read­ily avail­able su­per­mar­ket of­fer­ings. I did it so that you don’t have to. It was a tough job, but some­one had to do it.

Not one was per­fect, but all were pleas­ant. My top three were:

Check­ers – R22.99 for six. The pas­try was rather thick and the dust­ing of ic­ing sugar on top was cloy­ing, but the mince­meat was tasty with a de­li­cious but­tery fin­ish. There was a dis­con­cert­ing space be­tween the end of the lid and the start of the mince­meat, but I imag­ine this is the ideal spot to put in ex­tra brandy but­ter.

Pick n Pay – 25.99 for six. I liked the short, crisp pas­try and the gen­er­ous, cit­rusy mince­meat fill­ing, but they lost points for the pas­try’s ten­dency to fall apart in the time it took to lift the pie from plate to mouth.

Wool­worths – R29.99 for six. The pas­try was too crumbly and dry. The mince­meat seemed slightly skimpy in quan­tity, but I did like the highly spiced, clove-laden qual­ity.

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