01 . 12 . 15
The Topical Pie
A mega pie, roughly about the same size as my own face, that was made during our mince pie making workshop at The London Artisan market, Brick Lane. Writing by Julia Georgallis, image by Farida Farooqi
The first mince pie of the year is a monumental moment for me. It marks the start of my favourite season. I love Christmas and I love that weird and ambiguous filling and a lovely flakey pastry. But every year, without fail, I find myself at some point being baffled by them. I mean, what on earth even is mince? I’ve been chasing the myth of the mince pie around for a while now, trying to get to the bottom of this bizarre piece of pastry. A few weeks ago, I began my mince pie offensive by running a two hour mince pie making workshop in Brick Lane as part of The London Artisan Market. I taught people about the ingredients of a mince pie and passers by decorated their pies with different shaped pastry before being baked in my mobile oven. But I also armed myself with the story of the pie and gave participants a little history lesson as well.
I have always assumed that mince pies were an invention of the Victorians because, in my head, the Victorians invented Christmas (which is not true, but I like to imagine that it was perpetually Christmas back then). But it goes back much further than that – the mince pie came about after those returning from the Crusades brought back spices and recipes from the Levant in the middle ages. Middle Eastern cuisine is not afraid of combining meat with fruit – a winning combination, I think – but this was very new to Britain. And so, the original mince pie did actually contain mince meat, as well raisins, sultanas, currents, cinnamon and cloves – all ingredients that derive from the gastronomically rich Islamic world.
It’s a bit unclear how the pie jumped from import to being eaten exclusively at Christmas, but I assume it is because of its decadence and therefore only eaten on a special occasion. Mince pies were also huge and square, eaten as a meal rather than as a sweet snack. The squareness of the old mince pie was supposed to represent Jesus’ crib (I feel like this is a pretty vague and quite catastrophic metaphor here, but oh well). In the late 1600’s however, Oliver Cromwell got the hump with the mince pie and decided that they were heretical symbols of Catholicism, so he banned them. What a spoil-sport. When they resurfaced a few years later, they were much smaller and gradually the meat disappeared. There is no real reason given as to why they shrunk, but I have decided that the reason for their diminutive size is because they were still slightly clandestine and I envisage some kind of mince pie dealer hiding them under his coat, trying to flog them on the pie black market (that is 100% made up, by the way).
So there you have it – the mince pie is a Middle Eastern import, did contain meat, and shrunk because of its clandestine activity. Now, I know I’ve darted around some big issues here, such as what the Crusades actually were, the horrible things going on in the Middle East at the moment (mega understatement, I know) and also the tensions in our own society between various religious communities. I’ve done that on purpose, because at the end of the day, I’m a baker from North London not a politician and, let’s face it, I’m talking about pastry here. But, one thing I do keep thinking, and it seems frivolous, is that the mince pie is actually very topical right now, what with its history of something that came directly out of a war between Christianity and Islam. So, when someone offers you a mince pie this year perhaps a nice way to look at it, is as an excellent collaboration between two quite literally warring worlds and as a symbol of inter-culturalism. Forget about your shwarma, the mince pie is very quickly becoming one of my favourite Levantine imports.
Happy Christmas everyone. And remember, give pies a chance. (Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself).