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A Shakespearian Christmas with Traditional Minced Meat Pies!

For this year's Christmas, Nic Fulcher endeavours to make mince pies as Lady Elinor Fettiplace would have done in the 16th century!

Nic Fulcher

This blog was baked and frosted by Nic Fulcher, Interpretation Projects Manager and inspired by Hilary Spurling's edition of Lady Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book in the collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Elinor (1570-1647) was the wife of Sir Richard Fettiplace of Appleton Manor and her book includes many recipes we now think of as standard English fare: orange marmalade, rabbit pie, bread and butter pudding. These recipes offer an amazing insight into the culinary delights of late Elizabethan/early Jacobean society.

Hilary Spurling Elinor Fettiplace Cookbook

I have tried out several of Elinor’s recipes and although there are direct links with modern ingredients and cooking styles, many things have changed dramatically. One very noticeable change is the shift in palate with the balance of sweet and sour in Elinor’s time being far more dramatic than what would be pleasing to modern tastes.

That said, it appears that Christmas is a time when modern eating habits cling very close to those established well before the seventeenth century. Mince pies get their name from the fact that the filling is ‘minced’ small – that is, chopped very finely. From at least the Middle Ages, these pies included a proportion of meat, generally chicken and tongue, rump steak or mutton, along with the other ingredients that we would recognise today – suet, dried fruit, citrus peel, sugar spices and alcohol. The change to a sweet pie is relatively recent, with recipes for Christmas Mince Pies in Victorian and Edwardian cookery books still often including meat.

Lady Elinor Fettiplace’s Mince Pies are savoury, rich and fruity but not at all sweet – much closer to mediaeval meat pies, baked without extra liquid, liberally spiced, and lightly moistened with only fruit, suet, rosewater and alcohol, giving the idea that these were designed to be eaten as a small treat from the hand rather than formally at the dinner table.

Elinor’s directions are surprisingly specific for the time:

Parboile your mutton, then take as much suet as meat, & mince it both small, then put mace & nutmegs & cinamon, & sugar & orange peels, & currance & great reasins, & a little rose water, put all these to the meat, beat your spices & orange peel very small , & mingle your fruit & spice & all together, with the meat, and so bake it, put as much currance as meat & twice as much sugar as salt, put some ginger into it, let the suet bee beef suet, for it is better than mutton suet.

I used the following proportions and ended up with 36 deep-filled individual pies, but the quantities could easily be halved. Alternatively you could make a single large pie that would probably serve about 10-12 people – just increase the cooking time by 10-15 mins.

Elizabethan Mince Pies

8 oz. lean, cooked, mutton/lamb
8 oz. beef suet – chopped small is fresh or packet shredded
8 oz. currants
8 oz. raisins
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground mace
½ level teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 level teaspoon cinnamon
1 well-rounded teaspoon salt and two of dark brown sugar
Finely grated zest of an orange (or ½ Seville orange if you can get one)
6 tablespoons of rose water
A good glug of sweet sherry
About 1½ lbs short crust pastry

Mutton is difficult to find, but does provide a more mature, deeper flavour. As is block beef suet, so shredded packet suit will do just fine. But if you are striving for a really authentic taste – find yourself a good butcher!

‘Parboile’ in Elinor’s recipe means to boil thoroughly, but it is hardly worth doing so for such small amounts of meat. Any leftovers from a Sunday roast are ideal. Not having had roast lamb this weekend, I opted for a good meaty lamb-shank, which I simply popped into a slow cooker, with an onion, carrot, a stick of celery, a bay leaf and some seasoning, covered half-way with water and simmered very gently for about 6 hours until very tender. I then fished out the bay leaf (which can turn the stock bitter) and left everything else in the pot to cool completely. This way I was able to skim off and discard the solidified fat and I was left with some great tasting stock to use for soup!

I then chopped the meat very finely, added the rest of the ingredients except the sherry and rosewater and left in the fridge overnight for all the flavours to mingle and develop. The following day after a good stir I added the sherry and sufficient rosewater to moisten the mixture without making it too wet.

Elizabethan Mince Pies 2

Roll out the pastry as thin as possible, cut rounds to the correct size for your pie tin and mound up the filling, squeezing it down a little as it will shrink during cooking. Moisten the edges of the lids with a little cold water pop over the filling and crimp around the tops to seal well. Prick a couple of times with a skewer or slash with a knife. Glaze well with a beaten egg.

Bake in the centre of a hot oven (220°c/gas mark 7/425°f) for about 20-25 until golden and sizzling.

Elizabethan Mince Pies 3

They make a nice change to sausage rolls, served warm at a party, or cold for a winter picnic or a light lunch served with a sharp green salad and cranberry, redcurrant or medlar jelly.

Merry Christmas!