At Christmas, food isn’t just food. It’s tradition, it’s childhood memories, it’s the thing that brings families together over a shared appreciation of cheese footballs and York Fruits – the time of year when you stick two fingers up at foodie fashion (let’s be honest, Waitrose: no one really wants to find bacon in their trifle) and gorge yourself silly on the familiar instead, regardless of whether, deep down, you like it or not.
Take mince pies. On 1 December, I decided to set myself a challenge. A bit like the people who commit to running a charity marathon every month for a year, I’ve given myself the selfless task of sampling a different mince pie every day until Christmas, availability permitting*. The problem is that mince pies generally come in multipacks and I’d quite like to fit into my jeans come January – so I’ve been left with quite a few to give away.
Unfortunately, it turns out, not many other people actually like them. Sure, they’ll nibble on one out of festive duty, but offer them five of the things to take home and it’s a different story. “Can’t stand the soggy pastry,” a colleague says, without trying so much as a crumb from the proffered plate. Another replies to my generous text with a string of emojis that I think are meant to imply vomiting. Yet apparently each of us puts away 27 mince pies during the Christmas period, a contradiction that suggests a peculiarly British grin-and-bear-it attitude to food.
I’m only part of the way through my mission and I understand why. Shop-bought mince pies inevitably involve sweet, stodgy pastry and an excess of sickly, oddly vinegary mincemeat. No wonder 74 million of them meet a sticky end in the bin every year. It’s an ignominious fate for a rare culinary legacy of the Crusades, which, in addition to sacking Constantinople, opened up trade routes between Asia and Europe, bringing the flavours of the East to European kitchens.
Just as modern celebrities splash their cash on cars, flash medieval sorts showed off their wealth with fancy pies, stuffed with pricey imported ingredients such as exotic fruit and spices – oh, and minced meat.
“Meat” as in actual flesh, because this was a time when there wasn’t much of a distinction between the sweet and the savoury (given that Mary Berry boasts a recipe for lamb and apricot tagine, it’s hardly Heston-level stuff even now). Mutton seems to have been popular, though Hannah Glasse in the mid-18th century suggests ox tongue or boiled sirloin of beef, and the 14th-century cookbook The Forme of Cury yields an intriguing recipe for “tartes of flesshe” filled with spiced ground veal, prunes, pine nuts and sugar. (Is it just me, or doesn’t that sound absolutely delicious?)
These days, the last remnant of the pie’s meaty past is in the pale noodles of suet that enrich traditional mincemeats, although, after trying Mrs Beeton’s rump-steak version a couple of years ago, I suspect that most meat-eaters wouldn’t notice if you did stage a sneaky revival.
But even if you leave out the dry-aged beef, the great diarist Samuel Pepys was right to prefer his wife’s mince pies to those bought from “abroad”. Home-made is always going to be better here: the pastry crisper and more delicate, the filling more precisely calibrated to your taste, which for me means tangy morello cherries rather than boring old raisins, a good sprinkling of crunchy toasted almonds and a very generous slug of peaty whisky.
Sod tradition, though: if you can’t stand mince pies, however much medicinal booze they contain, don’t spit them out into a napkin, or abandon the filling in a plant pot. This is a time of year that should be all about joy, so treat yourself and have a cheese football instead. Merry Christmas!
*You can check on my progress at #mincepiereview on Instagram
This article appears in the 13 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016