“Blessed be he that invented pudding for it is a manna that hits the palates of all sortes of people”.
HENRI MISSON DE VALBOURG, Memoirs, 1698
The French writer and traveller Henri Misson de Valbourg was a big fan of English Puddings. In his 1698 book “Memories and Observations in his Travels over England” he noted one particular favourite, “Christmas Pye” - a forerunner of our familiar Christmas puddings and mince pies…
“It is a great nostrum the composition of this pastry; it is a most learned mixture of neats-tongues, chicken, eggs, sugar, raisins, lemon and orange peel, various kinds of spicery etc”.
Although the inclusion of ‘neats-tongues’, (salted and dried calves tongues) and chicken in a dessert pudding might be just a little too Heston Blumenthal for today’s cooks it wouldn’t have bothered a 17th century baker. They were used to putting meat in their puddings and sweets. A popular ‘Plumb-Pudding’ recipe of the time recommended adding ‘a leg or shin of beef’. In his 1615 recipe for ‘Christmas Pye’ Gervase Markham advises taking “a leg of mutton”, and cutting “the best of the flesh from the bone”, before adding mutton suet, pepper, salt, cloves, mace, currants, raisins, prunes, dates and orange peel. Beef or veal were recommended alternatives. These basic ingredients, along with recipes for using them, were brought into Britain in the 13th century by Crusaders returning from the Holy Land. Known as ‘mutton, Christmas or shrid pies’ they were served in coffin shaped pastry cases which lead 17th century jurist John Selden to suggest that "”the coffin of our Christmas-Pies, in shape long, is in Imitation of the Cratch (Jesus’s crib)”.
Other writers have attached religious significance to the basic ingredients of mince pies. Antiquary John Timbs (1801-1875) suggested that the addition of spices like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg were “in token of the offerings of Eastern Magi.” In her 2007 book “Discovering Christmas Customs and Folklore” writer Margaret Baker adds that the 13 ingredients originally listed for mince pies were meant to represent Christ and his 12 apostles.
During the English Civil War the puritan government disapproved of mince pies as symbols of ‘Catholic idolatry’ prompting propagandist Marchamont Needham to comment…
“All Plums the Prophets Sons defy, And Spice-broths are too hot; Treason’s in a December-Pye, And Death within the Pot.”
Samuel Johnson also took a view on the ‘idolatrous pie’ and the Puritans
“who inveigh against Christmas Pye, as an Invention of the Scarlet Whore of Babylon, an Hodge-Podge of Superstition, Popery, the Devil and all his Works.”
By early Victorian times the cheapness and general availability of sugar and a change in public taste resulted in a mince pie that would be familiar to us today - smaller in size, round in shape and meat free - apart from the addition of suet.
With or without meat Mince pies remain a recognised Christmas favourite. Greggs the bakers are reported to have sold 7.5 million mince pies in 2011 while Tesco’s are expecting to sell about 30 million of them this year. This figure however reflects a fall of about 1.5% in mince pie sales. Market research shows that people aged 20 to 40 are avoiding traditional mince pies because they do not like the fruity mince meat filling.
To combat the downward drift this year Tesco’s have launched a range of “alternately flavoured” Christmas pies including chocolate and hazelnut, apple and cinnamon, golden salted caramel and rhubarb and stem ginger. They hope to shift about 2 million of them. If this fails they could always revive the old recipes and replace mincemeat with minced meat. Legs of mutton, shins of beef and the odd chicken or two might just prove to be a crowd pleaser.
“Though we eat little flesh and drink no wine, Yet let’s be merry; we’ll have tea and toast; Custards for supper, and an endless host Of syllabubs and jellies and mince-pies, And other such ladylike luxuries”
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY
A CHRISTMAS PUDDING JOKE
Fred Astaire, dressed as one would expect in top hat and tails, was cooking a Christmas pudding for his dinner guest Ginger Rogers. Opening up the oven to see how it was doing the oven suddenly exploded covering him with pudding. Hearing the noise Ginger stuck her head round the door.
“What’s happened, Fred?” she asked, to which Fred replied….
“I’ve pudding on my top hat, Pudding on my white tie, Pudding on my tails.”
Just north of the Hogs Back on the A 31 near Farnborough is a small hamlet called “Christmas Pie”. It takes its name from a prominent local family named Christmas. The “Pie” comes from the Saxon term “pightel” or “pightle” meaning a small piece of arable land. Other ‘Christmas’ place names include ‘Cold Christmas’ in Hertfordshire, ‘Christmas Common’ in Oxfordshire, ‘Christmas Cross’ in Shropshire, ‘Christmas Gorse’ in Buckinghamshire, ‘Christmas Hill’ in Warwickshire and ‘Christmas Mill’ in Kent.
Credit: The painting “Christmas Pie” is by William Henry Hunt 1790-1864
– from Martyn Day