Mince pies are quintessential British. As soon as the days get shorter, you can see them in the shops, a pack of four or six. And as it gets nearer to Christmas, they show up more and more prominently, as if you NEED to buy them. And let’s be honest, Christmas in Britain wouldn’t be the same without mince pies.
But what are they, and what is the attraction for Brits? What do other nationals think of them?
Mince pies are little pies, with a mixture of chopped dried fruit inside, the fruit often soaked in an alcoholic solution (brandy) before the pies go in the oven.
The history of mince pies
But why the word ‘mince’ you may wonder. For that we need to look in the past. What is the origin of the mince pie?
The earliest mention of a “mince pie” type food can be found in a cookbook (or rather: on a scroll) from around 1390 AD. In this recipe, there was actually meat in the pie, as well as dried fruits. Pork or mutton mixed with hard-boiled egg and cheese. Dried fruits, known since the crusades, were cooked with the meat. Then spices were added, and some sugar. The rest of the pie was filled with molten fat that was allowed to set.
These large pies were called Mutton pies. In the Middle Ages all kinds of traditions concerning the shape of the pie and the significance of it, especially around Christmas, became widespread.
Later the pies became smaller, the pastry more palatable and more like the modern mince pies, and in the 18th and 19th century the meat (steak, tripe, tongue – whatever was affordable) disappeared from the recipe.
And the modern mince pie came into existence.
Mince pies today in Britain
Many households you visit in Britain in December will have mince pies in the house, and chances are you will be offered one. Work meetings are likely to serve up mince pies instead of biscuits near Christmas. It is a symbol of the coming holidays, and not buying them and having them ready in case you get visitors is simply not done.
And let’s be fair, a lot of people love the taste and the association with Christmas.
A strange taste?
So a pie filled with dried fruits, fat and brandy. Sounds nice? Well, not everyone appreciates them.
The first time I tried one, I was expecting something savoury. After all, I knew the word ‘mince’ as minced meat, most commonly beef.
Imagine my tastebuds’ surprise when I took a bite, and it tasted completely different from what I expected. Had this pie gone off? Sugar, a slight tartness, vague alcohol taste… I was quite taken aback.
And no matter how much I tried, I could not get over the fact that they tasted wrong.
I thought it was just me, until a few years later a European colleague was offered a mince pie at work, and said “no thank you”. All Brits expressed surprise, how can you not like them?
His explanation: the first time he tried one he expected a minced meat filling, and the taste was so wrong, he just couldn’t get over that. And suddenly the other non-British Europeans who were present started laughing and nodding. Yes exactly, that is how they felt as well! A mince pie should have minced meat, not fruit!
Help Europeans like mince pies
I wasn’t alone! Since then, I have heard the same story from more Europeans who come over here as mince pie virgins, think “mince = savoury” and find the taste so strange that it puts them off completely!
The moral of the story is: please explain to mince pie virgins that a mince pie does not contain meat, but chopped fruit, and we might actually be prepared for the taste and learn to like them!
(Disclaimer: some people do get over the shock and learn to like mince pies, it is probably a small but significant minority who react like this!)
Are there alternatives to mince pies?
If you want to make non-British born people feel at home at this time of the year, you could consider asking about their Christmas habits and treats in their native country.
There are a wide variety of Christmas treats in mainland Europe.
Think German Lebkuchen, Dutch kerstkrans, French Bûche de Noël, Spanish roscón de reyes, Portuguese Bolo Rei, Polish Pierniczki świąteczne, Ukranian khrustyky. And this is just a small pick, every country will have one or more traditional treats, cookies or puddings, pies or cakes, that are prepared in the run up to Christmas. And for many Europeans, these can be a taste from the past, from their childhood, from a previous home. Something to talk about and explain, and maybe even share recipes.
A quick explanation of the Dutch kerstkrans
Being Dutch myself I will explain a ‘kerstkrans’. The word literally means Christmas wreath. It comes in many shapes and sizes, from small cookies or meringues to a large bake.
The treat is usually in the shape of a baked ring or wreath, but it can also come in the shape of a letter, in which case it is called ‘banket letter’ or ‘banket staaf’. The content is made from a paste of ground almonds, sugar, eggs and citrus peel, which needs to rest for one or more days before it is used.
Then the paste is made into a roll, put on puff pastry that is folded over it, and gently turned into a ring of pastry or whichever shape you want, with the almond paste inside, and then baked in the oven.
And for the best experience, warm up in the oven again before serving. It was my paternal grandmother’s favourite Christmas treat.
There are probably as many different recipes as there are baking households in the Netherlands, but this one on Borderless Adventures seems a good one.