The history of the mince pie

The history of the mince pie

by Great British Chefs 13 December 2019

These sweet little festive bites are ubiquitous throughout the UK at Christmas, but they’ve been on a long journey of evolution to get to where they are now. We've teamed up with organic flour experts Doves Farm to chart the history and uncover the origins of everyone’s favourite yuletide treat.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

They’re the harbinger of the festive season and seem to appear on shop shelves earlier and earlier each year. When done right, they’re buttery little pastry parcels bulging with sweet, juicy, plump fruits drenched in booze, spice and citrusy flavour – done wrong, they can be limp, claggy and cloying. But one thing’s for sure – mince pies are the poster boy for Christmas in the UK, and in 2018 we chomped our way through 220 million of them.

Mince pies haven’t always been the delicate, sweet little things they are today, however. While they’ve been baked for Christmas since the Middle Ages, the recipe has evolved hugely over the centuries, changing with our personal tastes and what was available to the average baker. They certainly share a few key similarities, but you’d have to be seriously wealthy to be able to afford all the sugar and other luxurious ingredients that go into a modern-day mince pie back then.

Sweet meets savoury

Pies are arguably Britain’s most iconic and historical foodstuff, but the pastry was never originally meant to be eaten. Instead, it provided a sort of box made of flour and water for the filling to be kept in – far too hard and unappetising to eat. The filling would be baked inside, then hot fat would be poured in a hole in the top of the crust to seal it and preserve it for the months ahead (a little like pork pies and the aspic jelly you find around the meat).

These ‘pyes’ were often very large, suited to feeding a crowd, and depending on how wealthy you were would either be filled with questionable odds and ends or more luxurious ingredients. In the Middle Ages, those who could afford it had a particular taste for meats combined with fragrant spices and plenty of sweet fruits and honey. There weren’t really such things as desserts back then, as sweet ingredients were expensive and hard to come by, so savoury dishes were given added sweetness by those who could afford it instead. Sugar was incredibly difficult to source, so sweetness would generally come from dried fruits and honey. This had an added bonus of helping to preserve the meat for longer, in the days before refrigeration.

Along with imported dried fruits, spices were another way for the wealthy to show off about how much money they had. Importing ingredients such as dried ginger, saffron, figs and dates was incredibly expensive, but for those with coins to spare it was an extravagance they could afford. Even then, they were never a regular treat – you’d only find them served at special occasions such as Christmas and Easter.

From 'pye' to pie

The first mention of a luxurious, sweet, spiced ‘pye’ can be found in the fourteenth-century cookbook The Forme of Cury, which describes a dish of minced pork embellished with honey, dried fruits, wine, cheese, honey and spices. Over the years these spiced pies became more and more associated with Christmas due to their luxurious, celebratory nature, baked in large rectangles to represent a crib and sometimes even topped with pastry-based depictions of baby Jesus. By the seventeenth century they started to come in the form of smaller, single-serve circular pies, but the filling was still certainly meat first, spices and sweetness second.

It’s hard to say exactly when these festive pies started to lose their meatiness and become a purely sweet endeavour. In the eighteenth century, recipes started appearing that listed ground pork or beef as an optional inclusion, and as sugar became more readily available in the UK due to imports from colonial plantations in the West Indies, it started to play a more prominent part. By the time Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, mince pies were much like the ones we eat today (although there was still plenty of beef suet in the filling to add richness and preserve them for longer). Filled with dried fruits, spices, a little alcohol and an edible pastry crust (made with either wheat, spelt, rye or any other flour that was to hand), they had evolved from the hard, sweet-meets-savoury concoctions that were born out of necessity into something coveted and eagerly awaited in the run-up to Christmas.

While the idea of biting into a mince pie and being met with a mouthful of sweet, spiced minced beef might make some of us feel a little ill today, back in the thirteenth century it was a delight reserved for the rich and powerful. Some modern mince pies still contain beef suet – a fitting nod to the delicacy’s origins – and without the medieval penchant for sweetened meat fillings, today’s version of mince pies might never have existed. It just goes to show how richly woven the tapestry of Britain’s culinary history is – food for thought when you’re working your way through a batch of homemade pies straight from the oven.