December 2nd and the darkness continues to deepen. In this light and (or absence of it) nothern European flavours and traditions are edging out the Sicilian. When 4 o’clock feels like 10 o’clock, and the skies are relentlessly lead grey, you see the reason why we try to light our way out of the gloom, with the explosions of Bonfire Night rolling into the increasingly riotous gaudiness of the Christmas build up.
First though, there’s advent, which is supposed to be like Lent, all penance, contemplation and guilt. I think it’s safe to say that that version of advent has been ditched by most people. But I do get a real buzz out of a measured preparation for Christmas – annual rituals such as making sloe gin in October, allowing a restrained advent calendar as the only decoration until 13th, when the bling emerges from the Christmas Chest.
Mincemeat is an essential part of that preparation, Everyone likes a mince pie, (well everyone I know). But not everyone likes (or has the stomach capacity for) Christmas cake and pudding. The pies have been around for at least 800 years, in one form or another, so, as you’d expect, there are more recipes floating around than you can begin to imagine. There are various vague explanations of its origins, none of them definitive. ‘Mince’ in French means ‘thin’ so perhaps we have the Normans to thank for their invention – perhaps there is a parallel version in France that has taken a different culinary pathway? You can go back to the ‘original’ and include actual meat (Hannah Glasse suggests beef tongue), use vegetarian suet instead of kidney fat, go light on the fat and sugar altogether, and go for more of a boozy compote type affair. There are no rules, just traditions, and as every family and every home creates and evolves its own Christmas traditions – your mincemeat should be yours alone.
I decided to create a new tradition this afternoon, tweaking my recipe by adding quince and crystallised ginger, and in the gloom, I wanted the house to smell of spices and treacle sugar and hot rum.
Everyone agrees that the foundations of your mincemeat are dried fruit and spices. That’s where I started – and then started improvising.
150g candied orange peel
150g flaked almonds (crushed up)
150g crystallised ginger
2 eating apples (chopped)
1 quince (peeled and chopped)
A mix of cinnamon, allspice, cloves, mace and coriander – (around half a teaspoon of each but to fit your own taste) all ground together
200g vegetarian lard
Juice and rind of an unwaxed lemon
350g dark brown sugar.
2 tablespoons of brandy
2 tablespoons of dark rum ( I keep a flavoured bottle with a cinnamon stick, allspice and mace steeping)
This recipe is unusual in that you then cook all the ingredients (bar the alcohol) on the lowest of heats for 1 – 2 hours. This is mainly to cook the quince and apple (especially the quince), but it also melts the suet through the mixture and ensures that any dusty dryness is eased out of the spices. Once cooked, stir through the booze and jar up the mincemeat.
It now needs time to age – 2 weeks at least – but you can leave it sealed in the fridge for next year if you want some really fine mincemeat (all that sugar and alcohol make excellent preservatives). Like sloe gin, the longer it’s left, the better it’ll be.
And there you are – all set to get baking your famous mince pies, the ones that everyone talks about, the ones people look forward to as the nights draw ever in and it becomes acceptable to mention the C word.
Or, if you like, you can make a tart. My own particular kitchen weakness . My mum would make an open tart, filled with a jar of humble Robinson’s mincemeat and topped with a lattice of pastry. Served piping hot with custard, it was a special, rare treat. It has no finesse or sophistication and its existence could probably tip a cardiologist into insanity, so keep it to yourself, as your own guilty pleasure.