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Food #12: Victorian mince pies

Everyone thinks Victorian mince pies sound nice until you tell them what they actually are. I’m not sure what it is about the word ‘Victorian’ that does it but it makes boring old mince pies into bouncy-castle-style thrill-fests for those who hear the name.

Almost every conversation I’ve had about them has gone the same way. You see that bright-eyed excitement as they take their shoes off and prepare to enter the inflatable moshpit, their little minds teeming with the possibilities created by PVC, air and violent children. They couldn’t be any more in their element, desperate to jump on in there and enjoy what is no doubt going to be the ‘funnest’ day of their lives.

And then you, being an utter bastard, take out a big pin and pop their dreams.*

(I’m only exaggerating a little bit.)

“Ooooh, Victorian mince pies sound lovely! How are they different from normal ones?”

“Well, they’re exactly the same really. The only difference is that the mincemeat contains real meat.”

“Oh… that sounds disgusting! Ewww!!”

And they look at you like you’ve just raped their world and you wish you’d never mentioned them in the first place.

Fortunately for me, not everyone reacts in the same way. When I declared that I’d be ticking this particular item off my Foods To Try Before You Die list over Christmas, my good friend Andy volunteered to help taste test. Wives were drafted in** and the stage was set for a food I’ve been eager to try for as long as I can remember.

Mincemeat with real meat

There are various recipes for Victorian mince pies out there – some using lamb, some using beef. Mine, a sirloin steak variety, was written 160 years ago by the fabulously-named Mrs Rundle, and you can read it here (or watch the video).

Now, in my head, a Victorian mince pie would be exactly the same as a normal mince pie, except instead of currants you’d have beef mince. That this mixture sounds so bizarre and revolting is what made me put it on The List in the first place – it’s the sort of interesting experience I feel I have to try.

So imagine my raging disappointment when I realised after all these years that the amount of beef in this thing could be measured in quantities of bugger all. A 450g steak seems decent enough until you see the recipe also calls for 450g of sugar, and 450g of suet, and 4 large apples, and 1.35kg of currants, and a whole host of similarly heavy ingredients. For every pound of beef in the mix, there were eight or nine pounds of everything else!

When the mixture was cooked down and ready to be put into the pastry, my wife came into the kitchen and asked whether I’d put the meat in yet. She couldn’t even see it for how little there was in there. And there were no other clues to the presence of real meat either. The mix smelled beautiful – a purer fragrance of Christmas you will not find – but there were no beefy odours emanating from the pot. It was just the standard aroma of mincemeat.

By the time the pies had been through the oven and we sat down to eat them, I was starting to think we wouldn’t even be able to taste the steak at all. I’m still wondering whether I made up the fact that I could.

Mince pies with real meat

The mince pies were excellent, as good as any others I’ve made from scratch. They tasted exactly like normal mince pies with just a couple of tiny differences, the first of which was so subtle it might well have been a figment of my imagination.

There was a hint of extra richness in there which I’ve not come across in a mince pie before. My tastebuds couldn’t pick it out specifically, but they just had this little flavour tone running through them that I couldn’t match up to anything other than the steak. “You’re clutching at straws” read the expression on everyone else’s face when I suggested this was the case, but I stand by it.

Less debatable was the difference in texture. The meat had been finely chopped but of course it doesn’t break down like the fruit does, so every couple of bites I’d come across a little chewy lump of beef. This was reasonably pleasant although it added little more than novelty to the dish. Certainly, it could’ve easily done without it.

And really, that was it. Nothing amazing, nothing disgusting, nothing particularly different at all. The only significant impact the inclusion of steak had was on the bill, which it more or less trebled.

Was it worth it? Absolutely not.

Verdict: A waste of time and money, though if ignore the steak part, the rest of the recipe’s well worth following.

NEXT UP: Rose veal

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*It’s important to note that, on occasion, I have been accused of having an overactive imagination.

**I should specify that’s ‘our’ wives, as opposed to a selection of random married women. I imagine I would have got into some trouble if the latter scenario had transpired, and no doubt I would’ve had to go through the bouncy castle story all over again.

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