If you’re American, when you think of traditional Christmas food your head is likely filled with visions of ham, eggnog, and cookies, but there’s a whole world of international Christmas dishes, from figgy pudding to pernil—and British mince pies are not to be missed. But what is mincemeat, exactly?
Meat Pies and Mincemeat
One thing that always strikes me upon return from any trip to London is my own country’s glaring lack of meat pies. What gives? Wandering into a pub in London, of which there are many, you’re more likely than not to find a savory (or “savoury”) pie on the menu, and in some cases, an entire meat pie section. From beef to lamb, chicken, and even vegetarian versions, these flaky, doughy, single-serving pies encase a mixture of protein, onions, vegetables, and a rich gravy often made with brandy, wine, or stout beer. A good meat pie is comfort food of the highest order, and though you might find chicken pot pie on the occasional American pub menu, I would contend we are the victims of a significant shortage.
Delicious and filling meat pies of all sorts are devoured in English pubs all year round, but during the holiday season a specific version, called “mincemeat pie”, emerges dominant. Though recipes for mincemeat pie vary greatly, it is (broadly) a semi-savory pie, made from ground meat (often beef or lamb), stewed with fruits, like raisins, cherries, apricots, and apples, and traditional pie spices and flavorings, like cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, brown sugar, or molasses.
Walkers Mini Mincemeat Tarts, $18.79 on Amazon
Try them for yourself.
The History of Mincemeat
Mincemeat pie is a decidedly English food, and can be traced back to the 11th-century crusades. Armed with warm spices from the Middle East, the crusaders added much of said spice to the filling as a means of preserving, but also improving upon the likely not-so-fresh meat. King Henry V took favor to the dish, and began ordering it be served at Christmas, among other moments of celebration, like coronations and weddings. A flavorful booze like rum or brandy is often incorporated, as is suet, the hard fat of beef or lamb found around the loins and kidneys, which can be purchased in stores. Using exactly three spices was thought to represent the gifts brought by the three wise men to a newborn baby Jesus and became an important part of mincemeat pie-making.
Walkers Glenfiddich Mincemeat Tarts, $18.20 on Amazon
A boozy version you can buy.
Though by no means ubiquitous here in the U.S., mincemeat pie was brought to New England, along with many other English recipes and cooking traditions, by Puritan settlers. Because they largely rejected Christianity, and in turn Christmas, mincemeat was adapted as a Thanksgiving dish here in North America, but has since regained its rightful place as Christmas fare.
Admittedly, tastes have changed since the first mincemeat pie was baked, and the concept of meat and fruit in the same dish might be a confusing, even unappetizing, proposition to some. The beauty in mincemeat lies in its openness to interpretation, and if the thought of raisins or cherries with beef is too much to handle, one can cut them and take mincemeat pie in a more savory direction, with ingredients like mushrooms and peas. To rightfully call it “mincemeat,” consider leaving some of the pie spices in, especially nutmeg and clove, which make for a warm, interesting flavor, and work especially well with lamb/mutton.
Today you’d be unlikely to find mincemeat pie on many menus here, but English specialty shops like Myers of Keswick (New York City), will make and sell them, especially around the holidays. Your best bet is to make your own with easily found ingredients and a fairly simple process.
Below are a few recipes for mincemeat pie, also known as “minced beef pie,” or simply “mince pie,” to try at home.
In this hyper-traditional recipe, the Daring Gourmet stresses the use of suet to round out the flavor. Suet will balance the sweetness of the fruit, also. Get the Authentic Mincemeat Pie recipe.
Borden None Such Mincemeat, $5.48 at Walmart
You can also buy mincemeat filling for a shortcut pie.
Some interpretations of mincemeat pie remove meat altogether. Obviously more of a dessert, no animals were harmed in the making of this pie. Get the All Fruit Mincemeat Pie recipe.
Another savory version from BBC food calls for beef mushrooms and assembled in a casserole dish or tray is intended for larger groups or parties. Get the Minced Beef Pie recipe.
A savory version of mincemeat pie leaves the fruit behind and the addition of mirepoix vegetables, Worcestershire and ketchup resembles something you’re likely to find in most English pubs. Get the Savoury Mince Pie recipe.
A vegan version subs in coconut oil for the lard or suet and heavily-spiced filling of dried fruits put this in the sweets category. Get the Vegan Mince Pie recipe.
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