Welcome to the curious world of mince pies, a stalwart of the British Christmas. Claire – our Top Banana – always wears her God Save the Queen apron when rustling up a batch in our kitchen. For the uninitiated, we should probably clear something up straight away: mince pies are not made of meat. That’s just an insidious rumour – a bit like the one that Christmas crackers are for putting cheese on (more of which once we’ve dealt with mince pies).
Well, all right, it’s true that mince pies used to have meat in them. In the Middle Ages, crusaders brought the first recipes back from the Middle East and the British chucked in spices like nutmeg and cinnamon as a kind of naïve homage to those far-flung lands. They then went through a series of eye-watering evolutions involving things like chopped tongue and mutton suet (the Tudors adored them, but they made the puritans furious. Then again, everything made the puritans furious) before ending up as the fruit’n’peel filled delights we know today.
The modern mince pie is a balance of sweet pastry case and ‘mincemeat’ – a combination of dried and candied fruits, lemon juice, sugar and hopefully a slug of something boozy. One always hopes to find them snuggling into a dollop of thick cream or brandy butter.
The thing is, these innocuous-looking little numbers really divide the troops – some recoil at their mere mention, others cheer with festive joy. But they are undeniably convivial, signposting that it’s time for a little sit down. A breakfast replacement, they go down brilliantly with a cup of coffee first thing. Incredibly cosy when delivered with a cuppa mid-morning, they indicate that there’s time for a chat. They solve the problem of lunchtime pudding, especially if they’re heated (warning: keep an eye on them in the oven – the filling can get tongue-destroyingly molten). And Christmas drinks would be frankly weird without a tray of them doing the rounds. They pop up in early December and are finally put to bed around New Year, by which time…. enough already.
But, in the run up to the Big Day, a lovingly arranged plateful, showered with a light snow of icing sugar, cannot fail to fire up even the Grinchiest Christmas soul. And while Father Christmas must be longing for British children to come up with some other welcome snack left by the fireplace on Christmas Eve, that’s a tradition that isn’t going anywhere.
They are not for everyone but, hey, the Brits think pumpkin pie is super-weird. So long live the – completely meat-free and incredibly festive – mince pie.