Joan the Cook’s Famous Mince Pies

December 23, 2010 at 10:38 am | Posted in Eating and Drinking, Joan the Cook | Leave a comment
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The Famous Five at Christmas time. Given their legendary appetites, could there be a better excuse for a literary culinary bacchanalia? Perhaps surprisingly, the descriptions of Christmas feasting in Five Go Adventuring Again are not too over the top. This could in part be due to the relative lack of exercise the Five have in this story. Enid is usually careful to balance her characters’ prandial indulgences with physical exertion and descriptions of larger blow-outs are usually dispersed across the course of the book so the reader is never left with the feeling of ‘too much’. In Five Go Adventuring Again the Five go for the odd walk and throw sticks for Timmy to chase across a frozen pond, but as it’s winter and cold (to say nothing of the fact they have to spend their mornings studying with their villainous tutor, Mr Roland) they are a lot more house-bound than usual. So in this book the food is present and comforting without being excessive in volume – for example, the light but delicious elevenses provided by Mrs Sanders over at Kirrin Farm – ginger buns and hot milk; jugs of cocoa and homemade shortbread.

Back at Kirrin Cottage, Joan the Cook, who loves an excuse for a bake-a-thon, prepares a hearty store of Christmas food: ‘Joanna the Cook was busy baking Christmas cakes. An enormous turkey had been sent over from Kirrin Farm, and was hanging up in the larder. Timothy thought it smelt glorious, and Joanna was always shooing him out of the kitchen’. I think the pleasure gained from this is more about the anticipation than it is about the eating itself – apart from the carving of the turkey we are only told that ‘the children gave themselves up to the enjoyment of eating a great deal’. In many books and films with a Christmas setting it’s the build up to Christmas rather than the day itself that contains the most atmosphere and magic – think of The Children of Greene Knowe, The Dark is Rising and A Traveller in Time, to say nothing of Five Go Adventuring Again in which Christmas Day is swiftly forgotten once everyone’s retired for the night and the adventuring plot starts to take off in earnest.

Anyway, I am straying away from my original intention, which was to write about mince pies. You will note that in the above description of Joan’s culinary preparations, mince pies do not get a mention. Why not? We know these are in her baking repertoire as she provides the children with a big square tin of mince pies in the Easter-set Five Go to Demon’s Rocks (Dick describes these as her ‘famous mince-pies’). This did make me wonder if out-of-season eating of traditional baked goods is nothing new – surely hot cross buns would have been more appropriate to have taken to the Demon’s Rocks lighthouse? –  but clearly mince pies are, and historically have been, firmly associated with Christmas.

For a potted history of mince pies throughout the ages (going back to the days when they did really contain meat) and a selection of pie recipes from different periods, check out the fascinating Historical Foods website. This tells you everything you need to know about making different types of mincemeat from the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and provides plenty of photographs of both the processes and the finished products.

Although I am sure Joan and Aunt Fanny own a copy of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management I don’t think Mrs B’s traditional sweet beef mince pie would be the recipe used at Kirrin Cottage. This traditional pie recipe dating from c.1900 is more like the modern conception of the mince pie, the meaty version having faded from fashion during the Victorian era. I am going to admit right away that my own mince pies are made with bought mincemeat. It is home-made mincemeat – just not made in my own home –  and was produced by Jackie Stern’s company ‘Cakes and More’ and sold by A. Gold on Brushfield Street, Spitalfields. A Gold are also selling their own mince pies this week but if you are in the area I would also recommend the pies from St John Bread and Wine’s bakery. They are a whopping £2.20 each but are most substantial and also quite delicious.

Postscript: As I seem to have made it my business to sample every mince pie in town I can now add Konditor & Cook’s pies to the list. Golden pastry, light mincemeat, and only £1 a pop. Mine was freshly baked and still warm as I ate it outside in the bitter cold this afternoon. It wins the ‘Best Mince Pie of 2010 contest’. Sorry Joan, maybe next year…

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