Tasting Notes: Mince Pies – ArtReview

Tasting Notes: Mince Pies – ArtReview

A brief history of a humble pastry chef

Photo: ArtReview

It’s the season of making mince pies, drinking mulled wine, and having fun, and I’ve fallen into a rabbit hole researching the humble cupcake that is (probably) one of the oldest foods currently scoffed at around Christmas, though with a slightly modified touch. prescription. Today, the popularity of mince pies causes the media to rush to publish their lists of the “best supermarket mince pies” every year; they are all disgusting. Take my advice and avoid the forewarned mince pie shortage by making your own versions. So ubiquitous are mince pies in the English-speaking world that variations of Shakespeare’s delight appear in English literature. Village (1603) (‘Savings, savings, Horace! The funeral baked meats / Coldly provided the marriage tables.’) To the Christmas throne of the Ghost of Christmas present in the A Christmas Carol (1843) to the eponymous Charlotte Brontë Jane eyre (1847), concerned with “beating eggs, sorting gooseberries, grating spices, preparing Christmas cakes, cutting materials for minced meat pies, and solemnizing other culinary rites.”

John Leech, The second of the three spirits, 1843, steel engraving, hand colored,
12 cm x 8 cm. Fifth illustration in A Christmas Carol (London: Chapman and Hall, 1843), page 78. Photo: Philip V. Allingham / Victorian Web

The first cookbook in English, The way of Cury (c.1390), documents numerous recipes for cakes and pastries that include meat, preserved fruits, and spices, a mixture generally known as mawmenny:

‘Take ysode of pork; hears and brays. Make þerto ayren, raisouns corauns, sugur and gynger powder, powdour douce and smale briddes þeramong, & white grece. Take prunes, safroun and salt; and make a scab in a trap, and make þe fars þerin; and bake it well and serve it. ‘

This recipe, written in Middle English, and many similar versions in The way of Cury, have culinary roots that go back much further back in history and across geographies, to the 10th century Arabic cookbook Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Plates, c. 950) written by the Baghdadi author Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq. In this compendium of foods and recipes collected from across the region known as the Fertile Crescent, where the practice of drying fruits was a more common preservation method than in the West, al-Warrāq records stews from Persia, such as brother or zirbaj, which often contained lamb, beef, or poultry cooked in a sweet and sour juice made from vinegar, preserved fruits, and spices. As for spices, those like cinnamon, pepper, cloves and nutmeg were a closely guarded secret by Arab merchants: a fantastic story told to rivals in medieval Rome and Greece includes that of the fierce Cinnamologus, a giant bird that built its nest. with cinnamon sticks collected from an unknown land, and from which they had to steal the coveted spice.

Medieval festival, France, 1290-1300. Courtesy of British Library, MS 28162

In the 12th century, European crusaders brought these ingredients back to the West, which were introduced into the kitchens of the wealthy: stews, baked in a ‘coffin’ (a thick, hard pie crust that was not so much about eating how to relax). of transport and conservation), it became a dish reserved for holidays and Christmas celebrations due to the rare and expensive spices they contained from the ‘Holy Land’. A few centuries later, European merchants and merchants began to bypass their Arab suppliers, going straight to the source in Southeast Asia (resulting in the colonization of those islands in an attempt to win monopolies in the spice trade). With the more accessible spices, mince pie, also known at various points as ‘shrid pie’, ‘lamb pie’ and ‘Christmas pie’, became common at Christmas, when it was baked in oblong shapes for represent a baby’s crib. with a bit of Jesus puff pastry. (These quickly fell out of fashion in the 17th century, when puritan England disapproved of idolatries and luxuries, as evidenced in Cromwell’s 37-page poem by propagandist Marchamont Nedham: ‘All plums the prophet’s children defy, / And spice broths too hot; / Betrayal in a December-Pye, / And death inside the pot. ‘) Mince pies contained meat until the late Victorian period, when the ingredient was largely dropped in favor of the sweet flavors of fruits wrapped in a puff pastry or shortcrust pastry.

If you’re too lazy to make the filling (like I am), at least put a little effort into getting a crisp, crunchy, crunchy dough. Then when you put a plate of freshly baked cakes on the table, you can (like me) bore your guests with the complicated history of this festive meal. Now where’s my mince pies throne?

From the December 2021 issue of ArtReview


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