As Christmas approaches, I thought it would be fitting to take a break from my chronological journey through literature and come up with something a little festive. Obviously Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) has the Christmas meal par excellence, but with the school term having only ended on Friday I don’t think I really have time to roast a goose or make a plum pudding in order to replicate the meal enjoyed by Bob Cratchit and his family.
But I was pleased to find a much simpler idea when I was teaching Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) to my Year 10s. In chapter 9 Mrs Bennet and her two youngest daughters, Kitty and Lydia, have come to visit Jane and Elizabeth who are staying at Netherfield, guests of Mr Bingley, whilst Jane recovers from a heavy cold caught when she rode over to visit the Bingleys in a rainstorm. During a rather awkward conversation, in which Mrs Bennet frequently makes digs at Mr Darcy’s pride (having not forgiven him for refusing to dance with Elizabeth at the Meryton assembly), Elizabeth attempts to change the subject by enquiring whether Charlotte Lucas has visited the Bennets at their home, Longbourn. On hearing that Charlotte called on the previous day, Elizabeth enquires whether she stayed for dinner, only for Mrs Bennet to say: “No, she would go home. I fancy she was wanted about the mince pies.”
Charlotte Lucas is Elizabeth’s best friend, but despite their closeness the two friends have markedly different views on marriage. When Elizabeth raises in conversation Bingley’s clear admiration for Jane, Charlotte has no hesitation in expressing her belief that Jane must now do everything in her power to “secure” him, if need be by “shew[ing] more affection than she feels”. Elizabeth is horrified, pointing out that Jane and Bingley have not known each other very long, to which Charlotte responds: “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. ...it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.”
In the 21st century we may, like Elizabeth, shudder at Charlotte’s views (and certainly my Year 10 girls did), but in 1813 Charlotte’s situation goes some way towards shaping her views. She is 27 and unmarried, described as “very plain” and with “little fortune”; her marital prospects are thus limited. At the same time marriage is her “object” as it will provide her with “a comfortable home”; in her own words she is “not romantic” and, when Elizabeth turns down a proposal from her ridiculous cousin, the clergyman Mr Collins, Charlotte sees an ideal opportunity.
So Charlotte becomes Mrs Collins and moves to Hunsford Parsonage in Kent. Whilst Mrs Bennet’s comment about Charlotte being “wanted about the mince pies” is a dig at households where the female family members do domestic chores – she proudly states that she keeps “servants that do their own work” – Charlotte’s upbringing has prepared her perfectly for life as a vicar’s wife.
And so to the mince pies. These festive tarts have a long pedigree, dating back to medieval England when they would have contained both minced meat and dried fruit and spices (brought back from the Middle East by 12th century crusaders). By Austen’s time, however, the pies were sweeter and the use of meat was declining: Hannah Glasse in her Art of Cookery (1747) mentions minced beef as an optional ingredient. Meat only remains in the use of suet in the filling, though if you have vegetarians in the family, or – like me – don’t like the idea of using animal fat in a sweet pastry, then you can replace this with either vegetarian suet or butter (as I have).
CHARLOTTE LUCAS’S MINCE PIES (makes approximately 16)
(for the mincemeat):
50g dried cranberries
1/2 small cooking apple: peeled, cored and finely chopped
25g whole almonds, cut into slivers
60g butter, cubed
110g dark soft brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
rind and juice of 1/2 lemon
rind and juice of 1/2 orange
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons brandy
(for the pastry)
375g plain flour
260g unsalted butter, softened and diced
125g caster sugar (plus extra for sprinkling)
1 large egg (plus 1 beaten egg for glazing)
Icing sugar for sprinkling
To make the mincemeat combine all the ingredients, except for the brandy, in a large bowl. Leave overnight for the flavours to mingle. The next day put all the ingredients into a saucepan and place over a medium heat. Simmer for 20-30 minutes until the fruit has become rather pulpy. Leave to cool and then stir in the brandy.
Make the pastry by rubbing the butter into the flour (either by hand or in a food processor) to make breadcrumbs. Stir in the caster sugar and then the beaten egg. Bring together the mixture into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 220C (200C in a fan oven) or gas mark 7. Roll out the pastry to a thickness of 3mm. Using a 10cm round cutter cut out 16 bases and place them into greased muffin trays. Fill with 1 – 1½ tablespoons mincemeat and then brush the edge of the pastry with beaten egg. Re-roll the pastry and cut out 16 lids (7cm diameter), and press them on top to seal. Brush the lids with beaten egg, sprinkle caster sugar on top and, using a sharp knife, make a small cut in each lid.
Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. Leave to cool in the trays, before releasing and dusting with icing sugar.