My fingertips smell of cloves and orange peel. I’ve been making mincemeat. Dried fruit, brandy, apples and spice. I mixed everything together in a ceramic bowl and then packed the mixture away into little glass jars that will be opened successively throughout the month, for mince pies and other such things. I set the jars on the shelf and looked at them, thinking. Sleety rain pounding the window, wind howling and sneaking its way into every crevice of the house. A seagull screeching. There was some metaphor in this – these little spicy jars of boozy fruit on the shelf, the wind, the seagull, this curious feeling I had, but I couldn’t seem to grasp it. Not yet.
So instead I’ll tell you about mince meat, shall I? Dried fruit, brandy, and spice. That’s it really – some recipes include apples, pears or plums, which I think are nice additions. Some also contain nuts, particularly chopped almonds. Long ago it would’ve contained meat as well – thus the mince meat – maybe mutton or a cheep cut of beef. Some say it was a poor man’s way to stretch the meat out by cutting it with cheaper ingredients – though I can’t imagine dried fruit was ever very cheap itself, being imported into England from the warmer climates of the Mediterranean, so I’m not so sure about that.
More than likely, the melding of spice, fruit and meat was brought back, along with the exotic spices themselves, from the Middle East in the 12th Century by the Crusaders – and mincemeat was a relic of this. Over time, the savoury palate of the middle ages gave way to something sweeter when cheap sugar became available (through the less sweet reality of slave plantations in the West Indies) in the Victorian era. The inclusion of meat fell out of favour almost entirely after that – though some recipes still do contain beef suet, in homage to its meaty origins.
How mincemeat became so intimately tied in with the traditions of Christmas, I can’t be sure. Although, honestly, how can anything involving dried fruit, booze and spice not be included in our idea of winter merriment? Dried fruit was the delicacy of the winter season – the rare and expensive bit of sweetness that would be relegated to celebrations because of its very preciousness. Add some booze, some exotic spice – and you have something very worthy of festivity indeed. It is no wonder that in 16th century England, when the Puritans were trying to abolish Christmas and all its frivolous merry-making – they cast a disapproving eye specifically on the mince-pie.
And now I think I can tell you my thoughts from earlier. I was thinking about the strangeness of it all. A Middle Eastern tradition becoming an English tradition. An English tradition becoming the tradition of an American. The never ending collecting and morphing and changing and adding to of these recipes that define us and yet inextricably link us together. That’s the real magic of good food, isn’t it?
Mincemeat is traditionally baked into miniature pies (called Mince pies) that are served all throughout England at Christmas time. It is considered an act of good luck to eat one mince pie per day the 12 days leading up to Christmas, which I think I could quite easily manage (do you get double the good luck, do you suppose, if you eat 2 per day?). Mincemeat is also quite delicious heated and served with ice cream, as as filling for baked apples, or even layered into a Christmasy cheesecake as Nigel Slater prefers.
- 1/3 cup (75 g) dark brown sugar
- 1/4 cup (60 ml) port
- 3 (about 300 g) cooking apples, peeled and grated
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 cup (60 g) prunes, chopped into small pieces
- 1/4 cup (60 g) raisins
- 1/4 cup (60 g) dried cranberries
- 1/4 cup (60 g) currants
- 1/8 cup (30 g) mixed candied peel
- 1 clementine, zest and juice
- 2 tablespoons sherry, brandy or rum
- 2 tablespoons honey
- Dissolve the sugar into the port over medium heat.
- Add the apples, spices, dried fruit and juice and zest of the Clementine. Cook over low heat for around 20 minutes, until the liquid has been absorbed and the dried fruit is softened. Remove from the heat.
- Add the alcohol and the honey, stirring to incorporate.
- Pack into sterilized jars and store in a dark, cool space.
P.S. If you are a real traditionalist, here is a link to Mrs. Beeton’s Mincemeat recipe, containing actual meat.