In the old days, by which I mean centuries ago, not the early 1960s, the preservation of food was a constant problem. Even during a British winter, when it was much colder then than it is today, fresh food had a very limited shelf life.
Some foods we now take for granted came into being because they were a good way of preserving food in the days before refrigeration and also before ice was available for household use.
The pickles we so much love with certain dishes were first made not because of their taste but because the vinegar gave them a very long shelf life…although that term didn’t exist at the time.
When a pig was killed there was far too much food even for a large family and a way had to be found for preserving some of the fresh meat. Salt came to the rescue and with the addition of some smoke we had lovely streaky bacon as well as hams that could be kept for two or three years.
We have cheese because it was a good way of preserving an excess of milk that would quickly have gone sour, even on the coldest days of winter.
Some farmer’s wife had the brilliant of making jam so that a glut of fruit lasted all year instead of rotting in a couple of weeks or less.The mincemeat pies we now associate with Christmas were also a way of preserving meat because the original recipe contained minced beef that was mixed with spices, lemon juice, vinegar or brandy.
The origin of mincemeat pies goes back to the Norman Conquest of 1066 but those early culinary creations weren’t called pies. The earliest use of the word pie was in 1303 when it was in the term ‘pyes et pastelis’, or pies and pasties.
By the 16th century those mincemeat pies had become associated with Christmas but the Puritans tried to take some of the gluttony out of Christmas by dropping the word meat. At first people didn’t like the name ‘mince pies’ but it eventually became common usage. By the 17th century in some parts of England, beef was dropped from the recipe and some suet replaced it. Beef completely disappeared on both sides of the Atlantic in the 19th century.
Some serious English cooks still add grated suet to their homemade mincemeat, although most commercial brands use a shredded vegetable substitute.
The custom of eating mincemeat pies after a huge Christmas Day meal comes from the days when people had enormous appetites. Those were the days when the poor didn’t eat well except on holidays.
There was a saying that the rich ate what they liked and the poor ate what they could get. That, more often than not, wasn’t very much. So when the opportunity was there they grabbed it — and gladly ate mincemeat pies after a gargantuan turkey feast with all the trimmings.
Many people still eat mincemeat pies or tarts as part of the Christmas meal. But not me. I learned decades ago that mincemeat pies taste best of all for breakfast.
I made this discovery at the Christmas party given by my best friend, the late and much missed novelist Mark McShane, and his wife Rosemary, at their house in Sa Cabaneta.
In the old days there were several people in the same social group who gave Christmas parties, so they had to choose days that didn’t clash. Mark and Rosemary had theirs on the morning of Christmas Eve. It started at around 9am and went on until everyone went home, which was usually early evening.
At about 11am Rosemary served mincemeat pies straight from the oven. They were the season’s best pies because I was eating them with an appetite. Since then I have always had my mincemeat pies for breakfast — also straight from the oven.
You can make an unusual cake in which mincemeat is incorporated into the cake mixture, giving it a moist texture and an exquisite taste. The cake is even richer when the two layers are sandwiched together with a filling of your choice.
Mincemeat Pie recipe
The cake ingredients are: 125 grs softened butter plus two extra tsps, 225 grs flour plus two tsps, 2 tsps baking powder, half tsp bicarbonate of soda, 175 grs sugar, 180 mls buttermilk (available at El Corte Inglés), 2 lightly beaten eggs, grated rind of 1 lemon and 150 grs mincemeat.
Preheat the oven to 170C (gas mark 3). Using one teaspoon of butter, lightly grease two 20-cm sandwich tins. Cut out two circles of greaseproof paper to fit the bottom of the sandwich tins.
With the other teaspoon of butter grease the paper and place one circle in each tin. Lightly dust both with two teaspoons of flour, knocking off any excess. Set aside.
Stir the remaining flour, the baking powder and the soda into a large mixing bowl. Add the sugar, buttermilk, and beat well with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms a thick smooth batter.
Gradually stir in the eggs and the lemon rind and beat for two minutes. Stir in the mincemeat, making sure it is evenly distributed. Pour the batter into the sandwich tins.
Place the tins in the oven and bake for one hour or until the cakes are well risen and have shrunk away from the sides of the tins. Remove the tins from the oven and let them cool for five minutes.
Turn the cakes on to a wire rack and peel off the greaseproof paper. Leave the cakes to cool completely before filling and serving them. You can use any filling that takes your fancy.