Celebrate a Victorian Christmas at Woodhall Spa’s Cottage Museum and a Mince Pie Recipe Inspired by the Era.
Now we are into December many of us are getting ready and planning for the imminent festivities. One event that will be featuring on the Hirst advent calendar again this year, is the Victorian Christmas at Woodhall Spa Cottage Museum. It is usually closed to visitors over the winter, but will be open 12noon to 4.30 pm this Friday 4th December, to coincide with the wonderful late night Christmas market in the village. I don’t think it would be possible not to feel “Christmassy”, if you did both! The museum is then open for a further three afternoons on Saturday 5th, Saturday 12th and Sunday 13th December - 12noon to 4.30pm. I’m delighted to be involved again with a selection of my cook books and kitchenalia from that period going on display. The museum will be specially decorated with a Victorian style Christmas tree, garlands of seasonal greenery and a rich variety of traditional decorations. Displays of Christmas Past will include toys and games, festive food, tableware, cards, presents and more. Visitors will be greeted by costumed characters and can explore the displays to discover intriguing facts about the origins of Christmas and the influence that the Victorians had on the seasonal celebrations and customs that we enjoy today. Normal admission charges apply and for more information please visit www.cottagemuseum.co.uk
One of the cook books that will be featured in the exhibition is my copy of Eliza Acton’s “The People’s Book of Modern Cookery. Eliza was born in 1799 in Battle in East Sussex and died in 1859 in Hampstead. She grew up in Norwich a daughter of a wine and brewery merchant. At the age of 18 she and a friend opened their own boarding school where she worked for four yours. She visited France around this time and this is when she apparently became very interested in food. She never married, but there are some accounts of her having had a child with a French Officer, this however is unconfirmed and she returned to England alone.
On her return she started teaching and also wrote a book of poetry. Some 2000 copies were printed under her own name between 1826 and 1827. A publisher by the name of Longman suggested to her that what the world needed instead of more poetry was a really good cook book. Acting on his sound advice, at the age of 43 she started to write. Three years later in 1845 her cook book was published, it was a huge hit and an early Victorian bestseller. She had thoroughly researched her recipes and personally tested every one of them. The book was aimed at the new emerging middle class woman who may have had a maid and a cook, but not enough staff to avoid the kitchen entirely. The style of book is really the first that uses a format of separating the ingredients to the method and is easily readable and recognizable to us today. She also added a little bit of advice at the end of each recipe which she calls “obs”. In my opinion she is one of the finest of cookery writers of the era and if you wanted to recreate authentic recipes from that period, you would do well to start with Eliza’s book. Her experience and passion for cookery shines through and her recipes are meticulous in their attention to detail. She was a fierce social reformer and was becoming increasingly angry at the adulteration of food and the woeful state of commercially baked bread, which she said was the main contributory factor to malnutrition. This is what compelled her to write her second book solely on bread. She actually launches a pretty scathing attack on the industry in the last paragraph of her People’s Cookery. She regularly corresponded with the most famous of Victorian social reformers – Charles Dickens. I don’t know if they ever actually met but she created a recipe for “Ruth Pinches Beefsteak Pudding a la Dickens” in honour of the character Ruth in Dickens Martin Chuzzlewit.
This month’s recipe is an amalgamation from several of Eliza’s Mince Meat recipes. Victorian times see the transition from Mincemeat containing actual meat, to towards the end of the era the meat has been replaced by Beef Suet. Eliza uses boiled Ox Tongue in one of her recipes, but I thought you might not thank me for that one! I have included one of her more unusual ingredients which are boiled lemons, rather more acceptable to you than the Ox Tongue. I have omitted apples as my Mum is allergic to them and I don’t want an incident on Christmas day and I’ve also left out the candied peel, as regular readers of my recipes will know that in my opinion it is the work of the Devil! I added in Sultanas and glace cherries instead, as I like them. I have taken the ingredients from her recipes that I feel work well and I’ve scaled down the quantities to make a manageable amount for the modern household.
Mince Pies have been around for a very long time. On Christmas Eve in 1663 Samuel Pepys writes “Thence straight home being very cold, but yet well, I thank God, and at home found my wife making mince pies”. Mrs Pepys may have made hers with equal parts of cold cooked and minced mutton, beef suet, currants and raisins with a mixture of spices, orange rind a pinch of salt and a very small amount of sugar. Spicy meat pies have been eaten in England since the 12th Century, when the Crusaders brought spices back from the Middle East.
Mince Pies were never actually banned by Oliver Cromwell, contrary to popular myth, but they were frowned upon by the Puritans. After the restoration mince pies were usually circular in shape, prior to this they were quite often rectangular and referred to as coffins. This meant box up until the 1500’s and didn’t have the morbid association then.
Mince pies started to get sweeter in the 18th century with the arrival of cheaper sugar, by the end of the 19th century the pies had evolved to what we would be familiar with now.
Eliza Acton’s Inspired Mince Meat
I got almost eight 1lb jars out of this recipe and one jar will make 12 mince pies. You need to leave the mincemeat at least a week or so before you use it, to let the flavours mellow and develop. I have given you the recipe for a citrus pastry to compliment the filling, but of course you can use a good quality ready-made short crust to save time.
Scales, very big mixing bowl, big spoon, measuring spoons, zester, little saucepan, measuring jug, chopping board, knife, cling film, food processor
8lb jam jars, lids, baking tray, tea towel, jam funnel, 2 dessert spoons, 8 labels and a pen
Approx ½ lb Glace Cherries (I used a 200g tub)
1lb Atora Beef Suet (To make them Vegetarian friendly, replace with Vegetable Suet)
1lb Light Muscovado Sugar
½ lb Dark, Brown Sugar
3 Small Lemons
1 ½ tsp Ground Nutmeg
¼ tsp Ground Cinnamon
2 tsp Ground Ginger
¼ tsp Fine Salt
¾ Pint Brandy
¼ Pint Sweet Sherry
Put your lemons in a pan, cover with cold water. Bring up to the boil and then simmer for an hour and a quarter until tender. When cooked strain and leave until cool enough to handle before cutting in half and taking all of the pips out.
Whizz up the lemons in your food processor or chop by hand very fine
Chop up your glace cherries, don’t do these in the food processor or they will be too fine
Weigh all of your ingredients into your large bowl, except the brandy and sherry
Mix everything up well and then cover with the brandy and the sherry
Mix well again and then cling film and leave overnight
The next day wash and rinse your jam jars and sterilize in an oven at 100c. After washing and rinsing, put the jam jars onto your baking tray lined with a tea towel. Put the lids in too. Put your tray into a cold oven and let the jars heat up with the oven. Take out after they have been at temperature for about ten minutes.
Give your mincemeat a really good stir to make sure the brandy and sherry are well mixed in.
When your jars are cold, pop the jam funnel on top of your jar and start spooning it in right up to the top. You need to push the mixture down well so you don’t have any air pockets.
Pop your lids on, give the jars a wipe and label up with the name and date it was made
Store in a cool dark place for at least a week until you need to use it.
Victorian Mince Pies with Citrus Pastry (makes 12)
Scales, 2 small bowls (1 for each egg), measuring jug, tablespoon, broad bladed knife,
3 1/2inch/ 9cm fluted cutter, 3 inch/8cm fluted cutter, 2 mixing bowls, 12 hole patty tin, fork, pastry brush, rolling pin, zester, cake release spray, mini holly leaf cutter
7oz Plain Flour
2oz Icing Sugar
2oz Butter cubed and chilled
2oz Lard cubed and chilled
Zest of Orange
1 Medium Free Range Local Egg beaten lightly ( I used Fairburns)
1 Medium Free Range Local Egg beaten lightly for glazing
2 Tbs Very cold water
Put a jug of water in the fridge
Spray your patty tin with cake release spray (best to do that outside)
Sift the flours and Icing Sugar together in a mixing bowl
Rub in the fats until mixture resembles breadcrumbs
Mix in the Orange Zest
Mix in one egg with a broad bladed knife and I needed 2 tbsp of my cold water. Different flours have different absorbency rates. It should just be enough to bring it all together into a cohesive smooth ball
Preheat your oven to 180c fan
Lightly flour your work top and roll out your pastry about depth of a £1 coin
Using your fluted cutter, cut out 12 larger discs and line your patty tin. You may need to use different size cutters to me depending on the depth of your tin.
Put two good heaped tsp of mixture in each hole
Rub a little bit of egg around the inside top of the pastry to stick your lids to
Roll out and cut out 12 tops with the smaller cutter using the same method
Seal the tops and glaze with egg, put a little slash in the top of each one
You could make some little mini holly leaves if you have a cutter and decorate your pies using up the left over pasty, glaze your leaves
Bake centre shelf in the oven for 20 – 25 minutes, keep a close eye on them
They are done when the tops are a lovely golden colour
Put a cooling rack to cool for five minutes and then carefully lift them out and cool on the rack a bit longer. This is when you’ll thank me for the cake release!
Dust with icing sugar
Serve with brandy cream as obviously there’s not enough booze in there.
Warn any drivers about alcohol content! They might want to take theirs home!
Raise a glass to Eliza, Dickens and those Victorians whom we owe our traditional Christmas to. Cheers!
Sadie Hirst is a multi-award winning artisan baker and member of Select Lincolnshire and The British Society of Baking. She is a keen collector of old cook books and recipes and passionate about preserving our food heritage. If you would like to see some of Sadie’s Christmas recipes featured previously in The Target, please visit www.rjhirstfamilybutchers.co.uk