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Fruity, boozy little mouthfuls, mince pies will doubtless make an appearance on every table this holiday season, making spirits bright and then going straight to your hips. The diminutive treats are so omnipresent it's easy to take them for granted, but they have a long history, which saw them morph from hefty ground-mutton goodies into today's dainty tarts.

They've even been caught up in some intriguing, longstanding legends, which reveal perhaps more about people's prejudices and desire for a good story than about the dessert itself.

Pies as a culinary art form are old inventions, although they haven't always involved buttery, flaky pastry. For many centuries, they seem to have been primarily shells of flour and water paste wrapped around a filling to keep it moist while baking.

The cases, which could be several inches thick, according to Janet Clarkson, author of Pie: A History, were perhaps not even intended to be edible. Even once fat had begun to be added to the dough, bringing us into the realm of modern pastry, a pie crust was still sometimes considered more as a kind of primitive Tupperware.

A well-baked meat pie, with liquid fat poured into any steam holes left open and left to solidify, might even be kept for up to a year, with the crust apparently keeping out air and spoilage. It seems difficult to fathom today, but as Clarkson reflects, “it was such a common practice that we have to assume that most of the time consumers survived the experience”.

Early mince pies were much bigger than modern treats - and had a sweet and savoury meat-based filling (Credit: Alamy)

A pie full of spices and meat appears in 1390 in A Forme of Cury, an English cookbook originally written on a scroll, under the name “tartes of flesh”. To make these morsels, cooks were instructed to grind up pork, hard-boiled eggs, and cheese, before mixing them with spices, saffron, and sugar.

Other recipes redolent of today's mince pies include one that appears in Gervase Markham's The English Huswife, published in 1615. In this recipe, an entire leg of mutton and three pounds of suet go in, along with salt, cloves, mace, currants, raisins, prunes, dates, and orange peel. They were big, sturdy things – these pies were not finger food, but enough to serve many diners at once.

Stories began to circulate that during Cromwell's reign, the spiced treats, derided as a Popeish indulgence, had been made illegal

By the mid-17th Century, there appears to have been some connection made to Christmas, although people certainly ate mince pies at other times as well – Samuel Pepys had mince pies at a friend's anniversary party in January of 1661, where there were 18 laid out, one for each year of the marriage. But he also appears to have expected them for Christmas. When his wife was too ill to make them one year, he had them delivered.

However, a hint of scandal today swirls around mince pies during this period – or rather, just before it, during Oliver Cromwell's reign over England. During this Interregnum, when the Puritans were in power, they came down hard on what they saw as frivolous, godless additions to the Christian faith, going so far as to try to abolish holy days, including Christmas. While that particular bill did not pass Parliament, another one did, mandating that markets should stay open on Christmas and legislating that nothing in church services should be out of the ordinary that day. Other laws cracked down brutally on holy day feasting and ceremonies of all kinds.

Oliver Cromwell's reign saw a crackdown on festive feasts - but he didn't ban mince pies (Credit: Alamy)

There was no mention of mince pies in particular. But in later years, stories began to circulate that during Cromwell's reign, the spiced treats, derided as a Popeish indulgence, had been made illegal. In a 1661 book about the Interregnum, the author mentions the following rhyme:

“All Plums the Prophet's sons defy

“And Spice-broths are too hot

“Treason's in a December-pye

“And death within the pot.”

Novelist Washington Irving wrote in 1850, “nearly two centuries had elapsed since the fiery persecution of poor mince pie throughout the land, when plum porridge was denounced as mere popery”. Even today, you can find the idea in newspapers around Christmas, often with the added misconception that laws made during Cromwell's reign were never repealed. “Before you start tucking into a mince pie tomorrow – beware as you're actually breaking the law,” insists one article. These tales, however, are just myths arising from a series of assumptions and the attractiveness of the idea that pastry could be political.

Canned mince pie filling during Prohibition-era Chicago saw its alcohol levels spike to more than 14%

If you are disappointed that mince pies are, in fact, perfectly licit, here's another scandalous tidbit: according to a lovely essay in the Chicago Reader, canned mince pie filling during Prohibition-era Chicago saw its alcohol levels spike to more than 14%. That's quite enough to have made people very merry indeed.

Perhaps a more important change in mince pies has been the transition from meat to sweet, which it appears was already underway by the time Hannah Glasse wrote her Art of Cookery in 1747. She first directs the reader to blend 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[sic] meat in your pies parboil a neat’s tongue, peel it, and chop the meat as fine as possible and mix with the rest.” While the recipe is a bit ambiguous – in context it's possible to read it as expecting meat to be layered in with the sweet mince – this does suggest the option of just a sweet tart, no meat required.

The modern, sweet-and-spicy mixture became more popular from the 18th Century (Credit: Alamy)

As sugar became cheaper and easier to get, thanks to the rise of sugarcane plantations in the West Indies, sweet pies seem to have grown more common. In 1861, Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Managementgave instructions for a meat-free sweet version alongside a meaty one. And by the Victorian era mince pies were firmly in the sugary camp.

One constant throughout this period of recipe flux, however, remained: making mince pies has always been a lot of work. 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.”

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