The collections at the Essex Record Office include several historic recipe books, which give us an insight into what our ancestors ate and drank. This includes how our Essex ancestors made that essential Christmas dish, mince pies.
The history of mince pies can be traced back to the 1200s, when European crusaders returned from wars in the Middle East bringing recipes containing meats, fruit and spices with them. Typically, early mince pies contained minced meat, suet, fruit, and spices such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, and were large oblongs in shape.
The pies were stigmatised by the Puritan government under Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s due to perceived associations with Catholicism, but people did not give up their mince pies so easily.
Mince pies began to get sweeter during the 1700s, as cheap sugar arrived in Britain from West Indian slave plantations. By the 1800s, the pies had evolved into the small, round, sweet pies that we recognise today. While suet is still used in many recipes, the inclusion of meat was largely dropped altogether.
For some of us, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a mince pie (or two). The Women’s Own meeting of Stockwell Congregational Chapel in Colchester lamented in December 1947 ‘Another austerity Christmas. No mince pies, only a bit of cake to have with our cup of tea’ (D/NC 42/5/5).
A traditional mince pie recipe which includes boiled ox tongues can be found in the recipe book of Elizabeth Slany, which she began to keep in 1715 (D/DR Z1). Elizabeth was born near Worcester, and in 1723 married Benjamin LeHook, a factor (or agent) in the City of London. Elizabeth lived to the grand age of 93, dying in 1786. The book is catalogued as D/DR Z1, and you can view images of the entire book here by the magic of Seax. Her recipes for pastry for mince pies and the mincemeat filling can be found on images 15 and 16.
To make past [pastry] for Mince Pyes or Tarts
Take a quarter of flower ¾ of a pound of buttor & rub your butter in the flower make it up with boyling water.
To make Mince Pyes
Take 2 neats tongues [ox tongues] boyl them till they will peel & weigh to a pound of tongue a pound & ¾ of the best beef suet pickt clean from ye Skins shred the tongue very well by itself then shred your suet very well then take 10 pippins pared & shred fine & mix them all together then take 2 nutmegs & the like quantity of mace cloves cinamon & ginger take a pint or more of wine let ½ be sack & ½ claret so season it to your mind with the spices wine sugar salt & lemon peel shred very fine & the juice or 2, 3 or more Lemons you must put in 4 pounds of Currans & some candid orange peel & Lemon & cirton if you eat them hot you may when they are bak’t heat some sack & sugar & put it in them.
A slightly later recipe from the 1770s which doesn’t include meat can be found in the cookery book of Mary Rooke of Langham Hall. Mary’s (fairly alcoholic) recipe for ‘minc’d Pye meat without meat’ calls for a mixture of three pounds of grated apples, two pounds of finely chopped beef suet, two pounds of currants, two pounds of raisins, the rind and pulp of two boiled lemons, half a pint of brandy and half a pint of port wine, the juice of four lemons, sugar to taste, and half a pound of blanched, sliced almonds. The ingredients were to be mixed well then put into small jars and covered with bladder to keep them air tight. When serving the pies Mary recommended small slices candied orange and lemon to be put on top of them, and a mixture of brandy and port wine to slosh over the pies to moisten them. You can view images of Mary’s entire recipe book on our online catalogue Seax here (D/DU 818/1).
A rather more modest recipe from the 1930s which omits both meat and suet altogether can be found in The Essex Cookery Book, published in several editions by the Essex Education Committee. This recipe calls for ¼ lb each of apples, raisins, currants, sultanas and sugar, 2 ozs of mixed peel, 2 ozs of margarine, 1 oz of almonds, and ½ a teaspoon each of salt and nutmeg, along with the rind and juice of 1 lemon. The fruit is to be peeled and chopped, and the ingredients mixed well before being stored in jars.
Whether you are a mince pie fan or not, we hope you have some tasty treats over the festive season.