Season’s eatings: mince pies through the ages

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.

Elizabeth Slany's recipe for mince pie pastry (D/DR Z1)

Elizabeth Slany’s recipe for mince pie pastry (D/DR Z1)

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.

Elizabeth Slany's recipe for mince pies, including boiled ox's tongues (D/DR Z1)

Elizabeth Slany’s recipe for mince pies, including boiled ox’s tongues (D/DR Z1)

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).

Mary Rooke's recipe for mince pie filling (D/DU 818/1)

Mary Rooke’s recipe for mince pie filling (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.

‘Mistress Elizabeth Slany’s Book of Receipts &ca’

Our recipes series is back! We had a little break in transmission while we prepared for and then recovered from our Heritage Open Day, but we’ve plenty more recipes from the archives to share with you.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve become rather hooked on the BBC’s Great British Bake Off, and it really brings home to you the knowledge and skills that you need to be a really successful baker. 

It must have been even more challenging, then, with no refrigerators to keep your ingredients fresh, and no easy switch to flick to turn on your oven to the desired temperature. This makes the elaborate recipes we find in the archives even more amazing. 

One of the most extensive recipe books in the ERO belonged to Elizabeth Slany, who began recording her recipes in 1715. Elizabeth was born near Worcester, and in 1723 she married Benjamin LeHook, a factor (or agent) in the City of London.

 Title page of Elizabeth Slany's recipe book 

As mistress, Elizabeth would have been responsible for the running of the household, and the health of its members. Her book suggests that she embraced this challenge with gusto; not only does it include sections on meat and fish, pies, pastries, cakes, sweets, preserves, pickles, cordials and wines, it also includes medicines, salves and ointments. All of these recipes were carefully indexed at the back of the book.

Index in Elizabeth' Slany's book of receipts

Eighteenth-century food (at least for those with a substantial income) was rich and elaborate, and required a great deal of preparation. Dishes – savoury and sweet – tended to be heavily flavoured to disguise the flavour of tainted meat or butter. 

Caraway seeds, almonds, mace, cloves and other spices were frequently used to flavour cakes, as evidenced in these recipes fromElizabeth’s book:

Cake recipes in Elizabeth Slany's book 

To Make Good Cakes

Take a pound of fine flower & a pound of fine sugar and some carraway seeds beaten then take 7 yolks of eggs & 3 whites & mix them altogether with your flower & then put them in a stone mortar & beat it well then butter your moulds well or they will stick fill them about 3 parts full and put them in the oven & let them stand till they are enough if you please you may put in more currans.

To make a Good Seed Cake

Take 5 pound of flower put 2 pound & better of sweet butter when it is well rub’d in put to it at least a pint & ½ of the best ale yest [yeast] 6 spoonfulls of cream 4 or 5 spoonfulls of sack [a type of white wine] 6 eggs & 3 whites well beaten with this all mixt together which will make it much thinner than dough & after it is well kneaded & mixt with your hands cover it with a clean cloth & let it lie before the fire ¾ of an hour in which time your oven must be ready hot then take it up & work into it a pound & a ½ of carraway comfitts &1/2 a pound of fine sugar & butter your tin pan & put it down close all round & set it in. An hour & ½ will bake it.

To make a Plumb Cake

Take 4 pound of flower and 4 pound of currans ½ a pint of sack plump the currans then take a quart of ale yest ¾ of a pound of sugar 10 eggs & half the whites a little nutmeg mace & cinnamon & a few cloves a pound of almonds blanch’t & beaten fine orange flower water a quart of cream boyl’d + when you take it of the fire put a pound of fresh butter in it heit [heat] till it is blood warm then mix the spices currans & a little salt with the flower then put in yest almonds cream eggs & mix them with a spoon then set it rising you may put in some musk & ambergrease [a waxy substance that originates in the intestines of the sperm whale, with a pleasant smell, which is also used in perfumery]your oven must be very quick and you must put it in a hoop an hour or a little more will bake it your bottom must be paper.

Note that the plumb cake mixture should be heated until ‘blood warm’ (and also that it doesn’t include any plums!). 

Elizabeth lived to the grand age of 93, dying in 1786. Her eldest daughter Elizabeth LeHook married Samuel Wegg, who was the son of George Wegg ofColchester, a merchant tailor and town councillor. It was through the Wegg family that the book came toEssexand ultimately to the ERO. 

The book is catalogued as D/DR Z1, and you can view images of the entire book here by the magic of Seax. Let us know if you try out any of the recipes! 

See also: ‘Mistress Elizabeth Slany’s Book of Recipes’, Daphne Smith, Essex Countryside, Feb 1966, vol. 14 – in ERO Library