Posted in Kafevend Blog
We didn't always have such easy access to the wide variety of spices and fruits on offer in stores today. In fact, the discovery and pursuit of many of these items, particularly the spices, resulted in some less than savoury behaviour. But we're not here for that today- instead we're interested in the new foods Medieval Brits were making with this new fare, particularly those which we now enjoy at Christmas!
The introduction of these goods is believed to date back to the period of the Crusades, stretching from the 11th to the 13th century. Crusaders returning to Europe brought with them sugar and spices and new cooking techniques they had encountered whilst in the Levant. Although the idea of mixing fruit and meat in a dish might sound odd to us, it was much more commonplace back then and the method was soon taken up in Britain.
For the richer classes, exotic pies filled with a blend of minced meat such as beef, venison or goose along with plenty of dried fruit and spices became a new delicacy. Along with the butter mixed in, the sweet fruit helped to serve as a preservative, helping the meat to keep for longer. This was useful as Christmas feasts loomed, as lots could be made in preparation with the knowledge that they would be fine to eat throughout the period. Such quantities were made that they were also served as treats to labourers and the poor.
These early mince pies gradually evolved over the centuries as fortunes changed and technologies developed. With cheaper sugar and better techniques for preserving meat, the pies began to leave out the meat in favour of more sweet things. The butter was also removed for the most part, but was still a feature as it was made into a hard butter or sauce by mixing it with sugar and spirits- those who enjoy a little scoop of brandy butter in their mince pies will know they were on to a good thing! Despite a brief period of repression by the Puritans during the 17th century, mince pies soon returned and by the Victorian era were pretty similar to what we enjoy now at Christmas.
Christmas puddings had somewhat more humble origins that also date further back to the Roman occupation of Britain. A common meal found throughout Britain was pottage. A typical pottage would contain meat and vegetables, all mixed together in a couldron and simmered throughout the day, which resulted in a thick, porridge like meal. Sometimes it was thickened with bread and egg, creating a standing (meaning stiff) pottage. By adding to the mix the exotic new goods like sugar, almonds, spices and dried fruits, the precursor to the Christmas pudding was created.
Like mince pies, Christmas puddings followed a similar development as meat was left out and sweeter things added. We have Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to thank in particular for continuing the long tradition of making Christmas puddings, as they were made a fixture during the Royal Christmas dinner. You can even find the recipe used by their chef, the Swede Gabriel Tschumi online if you're planning on making your own this Christmas!