Christmas is past for another year, and mince pies are a fading memory. The aroma of them cooking a pleasure from childhood to now. I follow the recipe of my mothers when creating the pastry, which dictates half butter, half lard – and very, very short it must be. So short it crumbles and melts in the mouth. Pastry that short is a devil to handle but in years past I revelled in the creation of it. Nowadays my hands make it impossible without the help of a machine – so I know, to my irritation, my pastry is no longer the work of art it once was, but the filling sort of makes up for it.
I no longer make my own mincemeat –now there’s an interesting little note – mincemeat once consisted of meat, minced up, and fruit and suet. It no longer contains meat, is not a savoury filling but a sweet one and if there is suet in it at all it is very small amounts. Yet it is still called mincemeat. I love our stupidity with language I really do. Meat of course originaly meant food not just the flesh of an animal and so our language twists and turns:) A19 century recipe of mincemeat can be found here, complete with meat.
As I say, I buy in jars now, but they are never quite right so I add my own spices, there seems to be a general timidity in this country where spices are concerned, except maybe for curry and chilli when the maxim seems to be the hotter the better. I allow no timidity with the lovelies such as cinnamon, ginger, allspice or cardamom and please go carefully with the cloves. No, no I jest, don’t go carefully with them. Use them.
I add cinnamon and/or ginger to the mincemeat, sometimes I grate fresh citrus peel as well, maybe one time I will add these to the pastry not the filling as my whim dictates. These days in acceptance of lessening appetite I make small bite size pies, the reason I give is I won’t consume so much pastry /filling of course we all know it means I eat three small instead of one normal size – ah well!
This Christmas we decided on lamb – goose is no longer an option for me unfortunately, now that is a meat one can decorate with aroma. Goose will accept much flavour; meld it into its own superb tastiness, becoming enriched and velvet in the eating. However, since I had my gall bladder removed a few years back I have had to bid farewell to the goose.
Lamb though is perfect for an Elizabethan recipe I discovered about 4 decades ago. Boned and stuffed with apples and cloves (I add cinnamon to that mix as well!) slits in the side of the meat holds the same mixture – I don’t deal in 1 or 2 cloves at a time – no this meat is studied with the little buds. Sometimes if I have it around I will add lemon juice and or grated lemon peel. The whole is slow cooked in honey and cider. Delicious.
The tastes of Christmas are wonderful – but without the exotic aroma lingering in the air they would be but pale imitations. Part of the appeal of these spices is the warmth and therefore comfort they bring, the aromas seem to inspire all our senses in some magical way. My earliest memories of Christmas (and to a child isn’t Christmas magical) are tied up in these smells. There was not much luxury after the war, during rationing, but cloves, cinnamon, ginger and allspice were there, spices we could not grow here. Herbs from the garden were common fare but these exotic spices were the touch of fantasy our grey lives need. Along with oranges, mandarins, grapes and fresh dates. None common fare at all. Seasonal – all of them Christmas seasonal.
In our stockings (Dad’s sock actually) was always an orange and a banana. They could be held within our childish hands and smelled with delight.
The Christmas pudding complete with silver three penny bits also contained spices and was drenched in brandy – not my favourite fare but I loved the smell and spectacle of it when the brandy flamed, and of course I wanted the silver:) The cold ham for supper was the star of the table, studied with cloves and for us(every household a different recipe) dark brown sugar – dark brown was a treat and sent my imagination soaring to exotic lands. Then of course the Christmas cake with its crisp royal icing, packed with vine fruit and spice.
Spices do appear to add some excitement to the meal and the smell of them during the cooking sends this excitement throughout the house – do not turn on the air extractor fan while using these glorious creatures:)
I use these fruits and spices all through the year now, as do we all, but every time I open a pot or crush with pestle and mortar I breath in deep and allow thoughts to fly me back to childhood. However, nowadays I have knowledge which dims the excitement, dulls the shine a little, because now I know how we have obtained these spices in the past.
We have had spices here in the UK for centuries, brought back from foreign soils by soldiers, traders and explorers – The British have been at these activities for ever. Therefore it is not surprising my Elizabethans had them. However soldiers and traders were not known for their ‘manners’ and explorers were as careless with ‘others’ lives as men of arms, or those whose sole purpose was profit. They took them savagely, spices became more valuable than gold and we all know what happens when people covert gold. So I have read about the thousands of people tortured displaced enslaved or killed in the wars to control the spice trade. Sometimes too much knowledge becomes a wearisome and uncomfortable possession.
One of the great things about this feasting was the promise of spring around the corner and that is still the case – the mincemeat is finished until next year – I won’t eat mince pies out of season. The same spices are still turning stews and bakes into heady vibrant delights – it is still very cold – but as the days grow longer they will be turned and headed into other directions.