Lucinda Matthews-Jones, Tasting the Victorian Christmas: Mince pies and Chocolate Santas

Lucinda Matthews-Jones (Liverpool John Moores University)

A box filled with chocolate santas marketed as 'A Victorian Christmas'.
A box filled with chocolate santas marketed as ‘A Victorian Christmas’.

Last Thursday was the end of a very long term for me and my students. I’m not saying that I was bribing my students with treats, but my co-lecturer on ‘Victorian Popular Culture’ and I were both aware that we needed to sweeten the blow of week 14. For Mike, this meant stopping off at a local shop to purchase ‘A Victorian Christmas: Milk Chocolate Santas’. The box showed a ‘traditional’ image of Christmas with snow, fir trees and Santa himself holding a lamp inviting us to try the chocolate inside. The back of box stated ‘Delicious goodies from the heart of the Victorian kitchen that evoke memories of Christmases gone by’. I’m intrigued by the statement: ‘from the heart of the Victorian kitchen’. A quick look at the Creative Confectionery Company doesn’t suggest that they work in a particularly Victorian kitchen. They nonetheless reinforce the relationship between Christmas and Victorian culture.

In search of something more authentic, I had decided to make Mrs Beeton’s mince pies. Readers of JVC online will already know that this is not the first time that I have cooked from her wonderfully detailed Book of Household Management. I don’t normally like mince pies. But the lecture theme, ‘Victorian Christmas’, inspired me to recreate the Christmas tastescape of the ‘Victorian kitchen’ for my students and mince pies seemed the easiest way.

Arriving in Britain during the thirteenth century, mince pies were, and remain, an indispensable part of our Christmas. In the nineteenth century, they were a popular addition to the Victorian table. During the early part of Queen Victoria’s reign, they were even chosen over plum puddings to end the Royal Christmas dinner. Yet mince pies were not only the reserve of royalty. They were also used to spread Christmas cheer far and wide. In keeping with the emphasis on Christian charity during the festive period, mince pies were often distributed to the poor.  For instance, the year Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management was published, the Llanasaph Sunday school children were ‘entertained to their heart’s content’ with tea and mince pies at the local Church of England and Wales Vicarage. Similarly, the Rev. W. Williams of Llangar noted in 1865 that children of the Corwen Workhouse were provided with a ‘good supply of mincepies’ for a teatime treat on Boxing Day by Mrs Hughes, one of his parishioners [2].

However, I can’t claim to have cooked the true nineteenth-century mince pie. Instead I would say that these were Mrs Beeton-inspired mince pies. For one thing, I didn’t plan far enough ahead to make Mrs Beeton’s mincemeat a month in advance as I apparently should have. A quick stop at the shop for two jars of mincemeat that boldly proclaimed to be ‘traditional’ was, however, enough for me.

Beeton’s instructions are basic and to modern readers there is a sense that nothing much has changed in how we make mince pies.

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1859), p.904.

However, there are two things that struck me as I was making them. Firstly, these mince pies are made out of puff pastry and not the short crust pastry which dominates our modern day versions. Secondly, sugar is not added to her pastry paste. Having already made Beeton’s puff pastry before, for my creamed apple tart, I decided that I would simply have to cut down on the butter, as I did not want them to be too greasy. As a consequence, I felt that there was a better flake on the pastry. I also decided to dust with icing sugar rather than ‘dredge with castor sugar’ and if I say so myself, this was a stroke of genius on my part. They were neither too sweet nor too sickly. Lemon rind in the pastry cut nicely through the sweetness of the mince meat.

My mince pies were shared around students and colleagues. All of them proclaimed that they were the best mince pies that they had ever eaten and I was pleased to hear murmurs of ‘delicious’ and ‘yummy’. One of colleagues even tweeted that I make ‘the best mince pies in the land’. This year I will be using my Christmas cracker hat as a royal crown to my talents as LJMU mince pie maker.

On a personal note: I ate three mince pies this festive season and that’s three more mince pies than last year…Thank you Mrs Beeton.

[2] ‘Treat to the Children of the Corwen Workhouse’, North Wales Chronicle January 14th 1865, p.4.

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