The Brits are crazy. As an American I was absolutely sure of it. Especially at Christmas time.
When I first arrived in England, an American bride married to my Yorkshire husband, I was baffled by the fact that at Christmas, the busiest, most stressful, most here-and-there-and-everywhere time of year, they spend this most food-clogged season making tiny little ditsy fiddling mince pies. WHY? is all my foreign brain could plead plaintively.
There was a lot to learn. First: what is a PIE? In America, a pie is a good sized, serves-six-easily work of pastry. Here, I think, a pie is what we would call a TART, small and dainty that you can hold in one hand, until the rich pastry crumbles down your chest.
And what, for heavens sake, is mincemeat? In England, people will tell you with a perfectly straight face, “Mince is meat, mincemeat is not.” There’s usually a pocket of silence, a void, as the foreign brain does a couple of back flips to assimilate this new information. “Riiiiiight” is the only appropriate answer.
I once shared my perplexity at a writers’ workshop of mixed genres. “Ahh,” said Historical Fiction, her tea cup paused between saucer and lip, “that’s because in the past the fruit was added to the meat to cover up any tell-tale evidence of the meat being a bit ‘off’”. Women’s Biographies murmured agreement as she reached for another pie/tart. And Debut Novelist smiled reassuringly. So why was I the only one who didn’t comprehend this? It’s interesting but still doesn’t really explain the wacky nomenclature.
In America we make mince(meat) pies all year round — big decent plate-sized ones, pies with attitude, with character, with gravitas. The only fuss is an occasional lattice top crust, which enhances their dignity even more. But here in England, cooks roll out a perfectly decent sheet of pastry and then cut it into tiny frilly shapes to line shallow dents in a metal sheet, then carefully spoon a miniscule whisper of mincemeat into the dent, and cover it with another frilly bit! As if they had all the time in the world!
It stayed weird for many years. At last, there was a reason. I heard it from Sue, another American married to a Brit. It might even be true. Fact or fable, it certainly demonstrates that cooking can be an act of love woven into frenetic holiday activity. It’s such a tenderly beautiful story that it took my breath away. Long ago, she explained, the mince pie shapes were oval. They represented the bed for the Baby Jesus. The pastry on top was His blanket – or swaddling clothes, (depending on how the story was handed down.) That’s why the fuss. That’s why they appear at Christmas.
Now, the Puritans, who eventually moved to the America to escape religious persecution (before they actually started doing the persecuting themselves) banned these tiny pies as idolatry — graven images. However, after a while they longed for their mince pies. What could they do? Well, big round pies had nothing to do with the shape of a baby, a bed, or manger, or Christmas. But everything to do with the taste they longed for. They still had the old English “receipts” for mincemeat, and indeed, you can find some American recipes that include meat today. I made up a batch once, still serving the pie as a dessert. It’s surprisingly, gloriously, richly, delicious and the meat is hardly noticeable. It’s all in what you are expecting.
But my expectations needed new focus. These days the stressed are prone to retreat to Mr Kipling for the mince pie gap, but then, where is the tradition, the Christmas Memory, and why fill one’s mouth with second rate food? Amid the fol-de-rol of Christmas, the exhaustion poured into one day only (why, when there are twelve of them?) the tinsel, the missing relatives, the debt, the knee-deep wrapping paper, amid all the fuss, these little pastry mouthfuls slither in quietly to remind us of a Christmas Truth-made-tangible.
So now I am proud to join the throng of crazy Brits: up to my elbows in fuss and mess, lovingly upholding the tradition. Bring out those diddly-dented pie pans, bring on the rolling pins, the flour, the butter, the aromatic mincemeat, the steamy spice-scented kitchen! I’m all for it! Hurrah — it’s Christmas!
And, here’s a Yuletide greeting for you: may the crumbs that fall on your chest this season bless you and your celebration, however curtailed it is, and bring gladness in the coming year.
Cranberry Sauce – Two types
No way, am I going to tell you how to make your own mince pies. Each cook has specific customs – whether it’s brandy in the mincemeat or a smudge of cream cheese under the top pastry, or even using dried cherries or cranberries.
Instead, here are two versions of cranberry sauce.
Cranberry relish. A family familiar. Into a food processor fling in a thin-skinned whole orange, sliced, with seeds removed, 2 cups fresh cranberries, 1 cup sugar, and two walnut-sized lumps of stem ginger, sliced. Whizz until chopped and well-mixed. That’s it. Make it 2 days before you want to use it, so that the flavours hold hands. Good with any roast meat, in brie sandwiches, or in your next batch of muffins.
Cranberry Sauce. Even easier:. Empty 2 cups of fresh cranberries into a saucepan, or better yet, a slow cooker. Add 1 ¾ cups of sugar and a slosh of boiling water (2 – 3 tablespoons). Slowly cook while you do other things. Once the cranberries start popping it’s done. Cranberries are high in pectin and once cooled the sauce will thicken by itself. Nigella * suggests adding two tablespoons of cherry brandy once it’s cooked. Loveleeeee!
(*Nigella Christmas, Chatto and Windus, 2008.)