When we hear that Christmas trees and decorations didn’t go up before Christmas Eve in the Regency household, it might lead us to assume that Christmas celebrations involved little advance preparation. The reality belies that supposition, as stillroom work for Christmas would actually begin up to a year in advance. This early activity is because that is how long it takes for traditional mincemeat filling to properly age. This is a form of preserves, which in a household that has a stillroom, would typically fall under the purview of the stillroom. The same is true of the curing period and the periodic “feeding” of the Christmas pudding.
The consumption of mince pies and other spiced meat dishes dates to medieval times. By the Georgian period, however, those early receipts had been adapted and evolved substantially. In some cases, the meat had been removed from the ingredients list entirely, although the use of suet, a form of fat obtained from near animal’s kidneys, was still a standard ingredient meaning they weren’t exactly vegetarian either.
The evolution of the receipt (recipe) from the medieval dish to the Georgian versions began with returning Crusaders who introduced Eastern spices to Great Britain. Three of these, nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon – were added by cooks with the addition of a religious angle that related the dishes to Christmas. These spices were said to represent the Three Wise Men. Smaller, mincemeat “hand-pies” were also made, often with a top crust in the shape of a star. Access to and the affordability of sugar set the stage for reduction or removal of meat leading to the sweet version that was commonly made by the end of the Georgian period.
The aging process was critical to making a quality mince filling since the flavors were intensified during this curing period. The color of the mixture darkened, and as the alcohol evaporated a bit, the rich flavor became more concentrated. Interestingly, the instructions just say to keep it covered in a dry cool place without reference to the length of time.
Four to six weeks before Christmas, the Christmas Pudding is made. As with the mincemeat, this curing was an important phase during which time the flavors intensified, the pudding darkened, and the persons watching over the process would periodically–once a week or so–trickle a spoonful of brandy, rum, or a dark beer over the pudding. Christmas puddings come in many varieties, the two most commonly heard of being the figgy pudding of We Wish you a Merry Christmas fame and plum pudding.
There are religious symbols that grew out of the “Christmas Pudding” tradition. The mixture was supposed to be stirred east to west, as a nod to the Wisemen who came from the east, and every family member participating and making a wish as they stirred. Most recipes included thirteen ingredients, said to represent Jesus and his twelve disciples. Christmas day introduced additional symbols around the rich dessert. A sprig of holly was placed on top to represent the crown of thorns that was put on Jesus’ head when he was crucified. Alcohol poured over the pudding is set afire at the table in a display said to represent His love and power.
I find myself rather curious about what the fuss is about, having never tasted a Christmas pudding myself. Here’s a recipe and tutorial if you (like me) would like to make an attempt at making a Regency Christmas Pudding.
Have you ever had mince pie or Christmas Pudding? If so, do you like it? If not, is it something you would like to try to either make or taste? Do you have room in the back of your refrigerator for a bottle of mincemeat to cure for a year? I’ll confess that I’ve tried a couple of mincemeat pies and so far, I’m not a fan. I’m game to try the pudding though.