The secret life of mince pies
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 city-press.news24.com. 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.