The peculiar origins of Christmas Sweet Treats….

The origins of Christmas Pye’s etc…

A customer came in yesterday; she was French, and as she was enjoying a slice of Traditional British style Christmas Cake and a Mince Tart with some brandy infused butter she asked us what the origin of Christmas Puddings, Cakes and Mince Pies was?    Well that we informed Madame is a long story.  She was quite shocked when we told her that once upon a time viande/meat would have been one of the essential ingredients and that the filling is the stuff of legends….

The origin of such buttery, fruity, boozy delights in fact originate from Medieval times when the crusaders brought the idea of pies filled with spices and actually meat from the Middle East.  Pies were a great favourite then and especially during Tudor times when that illustrious albeit ogre of a King,  Henry VIII was especially partial to meaty fruity pies. Inside there could be found anything from lamb’s meat to Swan’s.

A Tudor Pye at Christmas

Over the years, they’ve had an array of different names including ‘shrid pies’ ‘Christmas pies’ ‘crib cakes’ and ‘mutton pies’. They were even called ‘wayfarers’ pies’ at one time, as they were given to visitors during the Christmas season.  Monks are as legend has it given such pies to the homeless at this time of the year.

For many centuries, certainly as far as the tarts were concerned, it was the filling itself that was the core delight with the pie crust acting as a kind of shell for the filling – modern day cling film as I heard a TV presenter recently describe it.   When Miners went down the pit in the 18th century their wives created the pie crust to keep the filling fresh and clean and the modern day pasty was born.    In what has become known as the Cornish Pasty there would be two fillings one side savory and the other half containing a sweet filing such as caramelized apples.  The pie crust itself would be discarded mainly of necessity and hygeine due to the fact that down the pit hands would be caked in coal.  With today’s Mince Tart the pastry is as much the star as the sumptuous filling.

Here at Chez Teresa we make our pastry for our Mince Tarts with flour, salt, ground almonds, butter, an egg some grated orange peel and a squeeze of orange. Next we roll it out on a board dusted with a liberal amount of icing sugar and make a number of small and big tarts.

Early mince pies were much bigger than modern treats – and had a sweet and savory meat-based filling…This is the Chez Teresa version of the bigger tart sans viande.

The very first mention of a pie filled with an array of different spices and meats appears in a 14th century English cookbook originally written on a scroll, titled A Forme of Cury.  It is the “tartes of flesh” that are of interest to us here. Consisting of ground pork, hard-boiled eggs, and cheese they were flavoured with spices, saffron, and sugar.  As a vegetarian this hardly endears them to me, but still it is an interesting fact.   The appearance and inclusion of spices to the mix bares testimony to the extensive and ancient trade links  with India, China and the Far East.  The ingredients for our modern mince tart can be traced to the return of the European crusaders and the spices used were seen as symbolic by Christians and ingredients such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg were included to represent the gifts given to Jesus by the three Eastern Kings. 

Other recipes redolent of today’s mince pies include one that appears in Gervase Markham’s The English Huswife, published in 1615 so at a time of many sea faring adventures. The recipe for Mince Pyes includes an entire leg of mutton, three pounds of suet along with salt, cloves, mace, currants, raisins, prunes, dates, and orange peel. Not for the faint hearted these pies were suitable for large banquets given by the wealthy such as by Merchants, nobles and at court.

One legend has it that if you eat a mince tart on each day of the 12 days of Christmas you will be granted happiness for the next 12 months.   In the UK there is even a Mince Pie Club

The frivolous and godless tart!

Oliver Cromwell although he banned Christmas in general along with all holy days and ceremonies (the spoil sport) was allegedly partial to a pie so mince pies were allowed, bit hypocritical that but such was the man.

With the glorious Restoration of the monarchy in the mid-17th Century of Charles II, Christmas was thankfully restored to its rightful place in our seasonal calendar.   Samuel Pepys wrote one year that he went to the Christmas service alone, “leaving my wife desirous to sleep, having sat up till four this morning seeing her mayds make mince-pies. He even mentions mince tarts as featuring at a friend’s wedding anniversary in January, 1661.   For each year of the marriage there was a mince tart to mark it.   He also appears to have expected them for Christmas and when one year his wife was too ill to make them he ordered some and had them delivered.

At the beginning of the Restoration in 1661 the following rhyme was popular:

“All Plums the Prophet’s sons defy

“And Spice-broths are too hot

“Treason’s in a December-pye

“And death within the pot.”

Sounds rather punitive to me and something that might have come from the lips of Oliver Cromwell.

Perhaps a more important change in mince pies has been the transition from meat to sweet. Hannah Glasse wrote her Art of Cookery in 1747 and her recipe consists of currants, raisins, apples, sugar, and suet, which should be layered in pastry crust with lemon, orange peel and red wine before being baked. She then adds,

“If you chuse meat in your pies parboil a neat’s tongue, peel it, and chop the meat as fine as possible and mix with the rest.”

and if you were wondering what a neat’s tongue it is a cow’s tongue!  Nice…

By the 18th century choice seems to be the key word here……..and the fact that at this point in time the Mince tart could be either savory or sweet.

19th century Christmas Classics:

As sugar became affordable and easier to get, due to the rise of sugarcane plantations in the West Indies, and unfortunately due also it has to be said to the hideous slave and indentured labour trades; sweet pies and sweet treats in general became popular.

Christmas pudding originated as a 14th century porridge called frumenty.  This was made with beef and mutton plus raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices.  Apparently the consistency was more like a soup then the pudding we know today.  Frumenty was eaten as a fasting meal in preparation for the Christmas.  Sounds a bit like gruel to me and not at all like the deliciousness that is our contemporary Christmas Pudding.

By the 16th century Figgy pudding as it became known was in fact much more like the Christmas pudding  that we know and love today.  Being made with a large quantity of figs it was baked and steamed in the oven, boiled or fried.

Later in Mrs Beeton’s celebrated Book of Household Management first published in 1861 instructions were given for a meat-free sweet fruity pie.

The importance of the Christmas Pudding as a core part of Christmas festivities began to be reflected in the 19th century when its image was reflected on the Christmas cards of the day. Certainly by the time of the Victorians, Christmas fayre as we know it today was beginning to look quite recognizable and suddenly for those who could afford it more and more people were enjoying Christmas figgy puddings along with Christmas tarts and Christmas cakes.  Christmas trees, Christmas Presents (not often wrapped as it happened) and also the giving of Christmas Cards were also becoming the rage thanks in particular to Queen Victoria’s much adored Prince Albert.

Pic from the Illustrated London News

When I was a child I recall that Christmas Puddings for the elderly and the very poor could be prescribed by your Doctor on the NHS.  Perhaps this is a possibility that it would be helpful to return when for so many families money is tight, especially at Christmas time.  Christmas puddings though very sweet definitely provide a nutritional punch.

 A Traditional Christmas Pudding

and lest you forget at Chez Teresa/A Taste d’Angleterre in Fontevraud l’abbaye

click to play

Good tidings we bring to you and your kin.
We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Now bring us some figgy pudding,
Now bring us some figgy pudding,
Now bring us some figgy pudding,
And bring some out here.
Good tidings …

For we all like figgy pudding,
For we all like figgy pudding,
For we all like figgy pudding,
So bring some out here.
Good tidings …

And we won’t go until we got some,
And we won’t go until we got some,
And we won’t go until we got some,
So bring some out here.



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