The earliest reference to that Christmas favourite, the mince pie, in the UK can be traced back to the 13th century, when it was amongst many of the recipes the European crusaders brought back with them from the Middle Easte. This first recipes contained meats, fruits and spices, all wrapped in a large pastry pie crust.
In medieval times the pie crusts were known as coffins, and pastry was simply flour mixed with water to form mouldable dough. The pastry itself was rarely eaten; rather it was designed to be discarded once the contents of the pie had been consumed. (Leftover pie pastry was often handed out to the poor). In the fourteenth century work Forme of Cury there is a recipe for Tart of Flesh, which contains figs, raisins, wine, pine kernels, lard, cheese, minced pork, honey and spices. A similar recipe using mutton rather than pork is also given in The English Huswife, in 1615. These recipes formed the origins of what was to become the mince pie we recognise today.
Mince pies were only for special occasions, such as Easter and Christmas, because the ingredients were so costly. Unlike the circular shape we are used to, these pies were first made in an oval shape to represent the manger that Jesus slept in as a baby, with the loose fitting top placed over the mixture, representing his swaddling clothes.
Although it is a myth that Oliver Cromwell banned mince pies during his period in power after the English Civil War, it was at this time that the pies stopped copying the shape of Jesus’ manager and adopted the more recognisable circular form.
During the Stuart and Georgian period, mince pies were a status symbol, as it was still only the rich who were able to afford them. The wealthy liked to show off at Christmas parties by having the pies made in different shapes such as stars or hearts.
It is unknown when meat was finally removed from the mince pie recipe. It was still included in 1845, when Eliza Acton wrote Modern Cookery for Private Families, but in 1861, Mrs. Beaton was recording two recipes different recipes for mince pies, one with meat and one without. Had she not decided on creating the sweeter alternative without the meat, who knows whether they would be quite so popular today?
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.