Meat to sweet: A history of the mince pie (2024)

Today there’s nothing remotely savoury about the mince pie. But this wasn’t always the case. Like so many dishes, the mince pie has evolved over the centuries.

We recognise them as the quintessential Christmas confection, packed with citrussy dried fruit plumped with brandy, spiked with spices and wrapped in crumbly pastry. However, long before Nigella introduced salted caramel to the nation, the English had a fascination for combining the sweet with the savoury.

Meat to sweet: A history of the mince pie (1)

Our mince pies undoubtedly have medieval origins, although we would not immediately recognise them. Pie crusts were known as coffins, and used as a vessel to cook delicate foods or house pre-boiled meat fillings. Pastry was little more than flour mixed with water to form a mouldable dough. It was designed to be discarded once the contents of the pie had been eaten, although perhaps the poor may have eaten the cast offs.

Pies were generally large as they needed to serve several people. However, smaller pies known as chewets (possibly so called because the pinched tops resembled small cabbages or chouettes) were also available.

Many medieval recipes combine sweet and savoury ingredients, and pies were no exception. Desserts as we know them didn’t really exist, so it was perfectly acceptable to use sweet ingredients in meat dishes.

Sweetness came courtesy of honey or dried fruits as sugar was not widely available. Along with spices such as saffron and ginger, dried fruits such as figs and dates were the preserve of the wealthy as they had to be imported into the country. Liberally using spices in your food was one way to show your peers just how much money you had.

Meat to sweet: A history of the mince pie (2)

Detail from ‘Tart de brymlent’ or ‘Tartes of flesshe’ via The University of Manchester Image Library

The fourteenth century ‘Forme of Cury’ gives a recipe for Tart of Flesh (above) which contains figs, raisins, wine, pine kernels, lard, cheese, minced pork, honey and spices. A similar recipe using mutton rather than pork is also given by Gervase Markham in ‘The English Huswife‘, originally published in 1615. Starting to sound familiar?

Due to the costly nature of the ingredients, spiced pies were not every day fare. They would have been served on important feast days such as Easter or Christmas (which were both preceded by lengthy fasts).

As the pies were often baked in a rectangular shape, people began to associate them with the manger Jesus had laid in. Soon dough effigies of the baby Jesus were placed on top of the pies to reinforce the religious connection.

It’s a myth that Christmas and mince pies were banned by Oliver Cromwell and reinstated at the Restoration, but some seventeenth century Puritans did frown on any such ‘idolatrous’ depictions of sacred figures. By end of the century mince pies were made round, with the baby entirely absent.

It’s hard to know exactly when meat was dropped from the mince pie. Eliza Acton’s mincemeat recipe in ‘Modern Cookery for Private Families’ (1845) includes ox tongue and ‘Mrs Beeton’s Household Management’ (1861) originally gave two recipes for mincemeat, one with and one without meat (although later editions would only include the meat free version).

Suffice it to say that by the twentieth century the only trace of meat in the eponymous mince pie was the suet, and even this can be replaced by a vegetarian alternative.

1591 Recipe for a Real Mince Pie


For the filling:

  • 1 1/2lb (700g) lean mutton or beef
  • 4oz (100g) suet
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1 tsp ground mace
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • a pinch of saffron
  • 2oz (50g) raisins
  • 2oz (50g) currants
  • 2oz (50g) stoned prunes, chopped

For the pastry:

  • 1lb (450g) plain flour
  • 2tsps salt
  • 4oz (100g) lard
  • 1/4 pt (150ml) water
  • 4tbsp (60ml) milk

For the glaze:

  • 1tbsp (15ml) butter
  • 1tbsp (15ml) sugar
  • 1tbsp (15ml) rosewater


Mince the meat, and mix in the suet, spices, pepper, saffron and the dried fruit.

To make the pastry, sift the flour and salt together into a large mixing bowl and make a well in the centre. Heat the lard, water and milk until boiling and pour into the well. Quickly beat the mixture together with a spoon to form a soft dough, and knead until smooth on a lightly floured board.

Cut off a quarter of the pastry, and keep covered until required to make the lid. Mould the larger piece of pastry to form the base and sides of the pie within an 8 inch (20cm) diameter, 2 inch (5cm) deep loose-bottomed tin.

Pack the meat into the pie and dampen the edges of the pie wall. Roll out the remaining pastry to make a lid and firmly press into place. Trim the edges, using surplus pastry for decoration, and cut a hole in the centre of the lid.

Bake in the centre of the oven at gas mark 7, 220C/425F for 15 minutes, then reduce temperature to gas mark 4, 180C/350F for a further 1 1/4 hours. Remove the sides of the tin, brush with the glaze and return to the oven for a further 15 minutes. Serve cold.

If you try this recipe at home, we’d love to hear about it – leave us a comment below and share your photos with us on twitter @EnglishHeritage

  • This recipe was originally published in A Book of Cookrye Very necessary for all such as delight therin printed by Edward Allde, London 1591 and reprinted in Food and cooking in 16th century Britain – History and Recipes by Peter Brears (English Heritage, 1985)

Mrs Crocombe, the cook at Audley End House, is making enough traditional mincemeat (using ox tongue) to last the whole Christmas season…

Meat to sweet: A history of the mince pie (2024)


Meat to sweet: A history of the mince pie? ›

Many medieval recipes combine sweet and savoury ingredients, and pies were no exception. Desserts as we know them didn't really exist, so it was perfectly acceptable to use sweet ingredients in meat dishes. Sweetness came courtesy of honey or dried fruits as sugar was not widely available.

What meat was originally in mince pies? ›

The reason mincemeat is called meat is because that's exactly what it used to be: most often mutton, but also beef, rabbit, pork or game. Mince pies were first served in the early middle ages, and the pies were quite sizeable, filled with a mixture of finely minced meat, chopped up fruit and a preserving liquid.

When did they stop putting meat in mincemeat pie? ›

By the 18th century it was more likely to be tongue or even tripe, and in the 19th century it was minced beef. It was not until the late Victorian period and early 20th Century that mince pies dropped the meat and had all fruit fillings (albeit with suet). Even today there are traditions associated with mince pies.

Is there meat in sweet mince pies? ›

Nowadays, it's easy to find mincemeat pies still made with beef suet and a small amount of minced meats (usually beef). All-vegetarian mincemeat pies are readily available as well, especially if you purchase a premade jar of mincemeat filling.

Why is it called mincemeat with no meat? ›

The mincemeat filling we know and love today includes ingredients like finely chopped dried fruits, candied orange, spices, sugar and nuts. Its name dates back to 15th century England when mincemeat would actually contain meat, unlike today's version found in our beloved modern mince pies.

Why did mince pies become sweet? ›


Many medieval recipes combine sweet and savoury ingredients, and pies were no exception. Desserts as we know them didn't really exist, so it was perfectly acceptable to use sweet ingredients in meat dishes. Sweetness came courtesy of honey or dried fruits as sugar was not widely available.

What is the pagan origin of mince pies? ›

In any case, meat and fruit were invariably included among the ingredients. Going back even further, however, there are some who believe mincemeat pie is based on an ancient pagan tradition of serving coffin-shaped cakes representing Osiris—the Egyptian god who, according to legend, died and was resurrected each year.

What do Americans call mincemeat? ›

In American English, "mincemeat" is a sweet pie filling (I think it's mince pie in BrE) which originally contained some meat but in modern times it is generally made mostly of apples and raisins. It's not very popular anymore, but you sometimes see it around Christmas time.

What is the difference between mince pie and mincemeat pie? ›

A mince pie (also mincemeat pie in North America, and fruit mince pie in Australia and New Zealand) is a sweet pie of English origin filled with mincemeat, being a mixture of fruit, spices and suet. The pies are traditionally served during the Christmas season in much of the English-speaking world.

Why do we only have mince pies at Christmas? ›

They became a popular treat around the festive period thanks to a tradition from the middle ages, which saw people eat a mince pie for 12 days from Christmas day to Twelfth Night. Doing this was believed to bring you happiness for the next 12 months.

Why do Brits call it minced meat? ›

The "mince" in mincemeat comes from the Middle English mincen, and the Old French mincier both traceable to the Vulgar Latin minutiare, meaning chop finely. The word mincemeat is an adaptation of an earlier term minced meat, meaning finely chopped meat. Meat was also a term for food in general, not only animal flesh.

Is none such mincemeat discontinued? ›

Unfortunately the company who bought it has decided to discontinue! Get it while you can-the cookie recipe is on the box and they're awesome. Sadly you cannot replicate the cookies properly using the jarred minced meat/they do NOT come out well. Pricey but worth it!

What is the inside of a mince pie called? ›

All About Mincemeat: The Fabulous Filling for Mince Pies

These days, mincemeat is made with a mixture of dried fruit, such as raisins and currants, candied fruit peels, lemon and orange zest, finely chopped apple, brandy, warming spices, and the rendered animal fat suet (or a vegetarian substitute).

When did they stop putting meat in mincemeat? ›

The beef was sometimes partly or wholly replaced by suet (the solid white fat found around the kidneys of both cows and sheep) from the mid-17th century onwards, and meat had effectively disappeared from 'mincemeat' on both sides of the Atlantic in the 19th century.''

Why is mincemeat so expensive? ›

Mincemeat isn't difficult to make, but it has a lot of ingredients, which can make it expensive to produce in small batches, and it requires at least a day's advance planning to let the ingredients sit.

What is traditional mincemeat made of? ›

Mincemeat is a combination of chopped dried fruits, spices, sugar, nuts, distilled spirits, a fat of some type and sometimes meat. The name is a carryover from 15th century England when mincemeat did indeed have meat in the mix; in fact, the whole point of mincemeat was to preserve meat with sugar and alcohol.

What were Victorian mince pies made from? ›

Ingredients included dried fruits like raisins prunes and figs, lamb or mutton (representing the shepherds) and spices like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg (for the Wise Men). By late Victorian England, mince pies ceased to contain meat and had all fruit fillings (with suet). This sweetmeat pie is one we eat today.

Did true or false mince pies used to have meat in them? ›

King Henry V had mince pies made as early as in 1413 for his coronation celebration on April 9. During this period it would have been made with various meats, game birds, boiled eggs and spices, which were very rare and extravagant ingredients of the time as this was a pie for celebration.

What odd ingredient did mince pies once contain? ›

yes this is why the mixture is called mince-meat! A recipe from 1615 contains the meat of a whole leg of lamb but states that beef or veal would do as well. Older, Medieval recipes sometimes contain fish sso the pies can be eaten on fish days.

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