It’s somehow both obvious and surprising to know that mincemeat originally contained meat mince. Most usually and preferably it would be beef, but if times had been hard then it really could have been almost any animal and almost any part of an animal. Who’s for a mince pie made from minced sheep’s tongue?
Those meaty mince pies – much larger in size than the three-biters we think of now – were all the rage at medieval Christmases. It’s a long and slow passage of history which saw mincemeat gradually evolve into our sweetly spicy and (if you’re lucky) just a little boozy pie-filler. It was thanks to the Victorians that meaty mincemeat went out of vogue for good and Christmas mince pies became mainly sweet.
The essential and common ingredients for mincemeat are dried fruits, nuts, spices, brandy or rum, and sugar. Maybe something citrussy. Maybe some other fruits. And that is the thing about mincemeat: there is no single definitive recipe. Each generation and family adds or takes away ingredients until they hit on the one which to them is Christmas in a pie.
There is usually one other component to mincemeat and that is suet. Beef suet could be a nod to the mincemeat’s origins, but lots of people use vegetarian suet now. It is there for flavour and to give a juiciness, yet the mincemeat that I have been making for years now doesn’t have any suet in it at all. All the juiciness you could hope for is provided by plums, apple and oranges. The flavour comes from everything and lacks nothing.
I can’t pretend this recipe has deep ‘passed down’ roots, and it’s not even from an old cookery book. It’s by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall. So this is a deeply un-traditional mincemeat but it is the mincemeat recipe which I will be handing down to anyone who might care to want it.
1kg plums, halved and stoned
Finely grated zest and juice of 2-3 oranges (you need 200ml juice)
500g russet apples, peeled, cored and chopped into 1cm cubes
100g orange marmalade
250g demerara sugar
½ tsp ground cloves
2 tsp ground ginger
½ nutmeg, grated
50ml ginger wine or cordial (Hugh says this is optional and I have never yet opted to include it)
100g chopped walnuts
50ml brandy or sloe gin
Put the plums and orange juice in a pan, cook gently for 15 minutes, until tender, then purée. Pour into a bowl with all the other ingredients except the alcohol, mix, cover and leave to stand for 12 hours.
Preheat the oven to 110C/225F/gas mark ½. Put the mincemeat in a large baking dish and bake for two to two and a half hours. Stir in the booze, spoon into sterilised jars, seal and store in a dry, dark, cool place or the fridge until Christmas.
If you don’t manage to use it all up by Twelfth Night (but I bet you do) it will keep for up to 6 months.