And so, it’s the countdown to a Covid Christmas! Does that sound cynical?
Nowadays, Christmas requires returning home two weeks early for the obligatory quarantine. Never mind that France and the UK were both in respective lockdowns. Ok, yes, I’m cynical.
Upon touching down in London, it was like Christmas exploded. Christmas appears to be dragging its heels in Toulouse, reluctant to show up for the party, but here, the days are frosty cold and the local high street glitters with twinkling lights and Christmas trees. But, quarantine is a strange time. It’s a good thing I like my own company. As long as I don’t touch anything – the fridge, door handles, hug my mum – or leave the house, we should be fine.
My kitchen ban has been relatively easy so far. My parents are both the household Head Chefs these days so I’m hardly needed. And, meanwhile, my mum has set up a mini mince pie factory, baking batches of 12 every other night. The scent of Christmas fills the house; warming, spicy and rich from the seeped dried fruit. It’s an industrial job; rolling and shaping shortcrust pastry, filling the casings with homemade mincemeat, all topped with her Christmassy pastry stars. I think there are at least 60 in the freezer by now. Considering Christmas won’t be extended beyond the four of us this year, that’s 15 mince pies each. What a merry Christmas! Tralalala lalalalaaaaa!
We’ve made a start already. It’s a shallow dent, really, in this fathomless pit of mince pies. Some evenings, I find a tiny pie waiting for me on a plate and a pert blob of my mum’s brandy butter crowning its top. She made the mincemeat herself. And yes, mincemeat. To non-mince pie advocates, this phrase would be confusing, and possibly concerning. Trying to explain this concept to Gaylord has been… interesting… A dessert with meat?! Originally, yes! (Which is probably why Britain isn’t acclaimed for its cuisine) but, thankfully, today, less so… let me explain:
- In the Middle Ages, pies (or ‘pyes’, who needs new-fangled spelling) were a cheap and easy way to preserve meat. The pastry itself was inedible but it was chiselled apart to reveal the baked meat for everyone to share.
- After the Crusades in the 12th century, exotic spices were fashionably flung into many a rich person’s meat pie to declare their wealth. Along with the saffron, nutmeg and ginger, their cooks would add all sorts of sweeteners – honey, dried figs, plums – as another status symbol and to further preserve the meat.
- This is probably why the UK love the meat-with-fruit combo. Chunks of apple in a casserole, fruity condiments with our roasts, a pork belly sandwich generously filled with hedgerow jam… so it’s no wonder we feel affinity to the Middle Eastern meat dishes created at restaurants such as Honey & Co and Nopi, showered with spices and golden raisins. We stole their idea!
- As they were expensive to make, these spicy, fruity mincemeat pies were only available at Christmas (and Easter, oddly). Throughout the ages, the shape of these mince pies changed to small, boxy rectangles, apparently in the edible form of a manger, even finished with a pastry baby Jesus. How delicious and holy.
- Christmas and its heathen ways apparently encouraged immorality during puritanical Oliver Cromwell’s short-lived rule in the mid-1600s, so, naturally, it was deemed illegal. ‘Carnal and sensual delights’ were prudishly confiscated, allegedly including the sacred mince pie.
- By the Victorian age, the pie filling began to resemble what we know and love today. The meat was considered ‘optional’ (I suppose they realised the diced oxtail was barely palatable), especially as there was an increase in sugar imports from the colonies in the West Indies, although they still contained beef suet (grated fat which protects the kidneys) for added richness.
- Today, vegetarian suet is available in most supermarkets so these infamous, innocent little pies, without a trace of meat, now bare a misnomer.
The mince pie can only join the other bizarre British concoctions with entirely unrelated titles like Toad-in-the-hole and (god forbid) Spotted Dick. But, in a similar fashion, these dishes have defined our culinary history’s rich tapestry and our love of stodgy, suety food which will always cause a raised eyebrow from our French neighbours. Only through the butterfly effect have we finished with the food we treasure today. Don’t knock our mince pies, people!
That said, I’ll end with an alternative method to gobble up your mincemeat this year. My mum whipped up Delia’s mincemeat jalousie – a puff pastry strudel, slatted much like the similarly named slatted blinds – which was stuffed with fragrant, nutty mincemeat and diced apple, sprinkled with cinnamon and crystallised sugar. Slice open the crunchy pastry jacket for soft, syrupy mincemeat, full of the fragrance of Christmas.
Mincemeat and apple jalousie
- 250 g mincemeat
- ½ cooking apple
- ½ orange zested
- ½ mixed spice
- 200 g puff pastry homemade or shop-bought
- 1 egg beaten
- 2 tsp granulated sugar
- ¼ tsp cinnamon
- Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/400°F. Core and finely dice the apple. In a large bowl, mix together the apple, mincemeat, orange zest and mixed spice until all combined.
- Sprinkle the surface with a little flour. Roll the pastry into a rectangular shape, to the thickness of a £1 coin. Gently transfer it to a greased baking tray.
- Spoon the mincemeat mixture down one half of the longer side of the pastry, piling it up high. Brush a little egg along the edge then fold the rest of the pastry over and press it down to seal all along the seam. Brush with egg and slice slashes across the top. Sprinkle with granulated sugar and cinnamon then slide it into the oven to bake for 20-30 minutes.
- Once the pastry is golden, crisp and smelling like Christmas Day, take it out and cut it into big slices. Serve with ice cream or brandy butter.