Archive of the Month Dec 2020: The Chequers Mince Pie Recipe
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The Chequers / Lady Eyre’s Minced Pies
3 pound suet picked clean
1 pound and a quarter of the inside of a sirloin of Beef, or veal
3 pound of currants,
one ounce and a half of cinnamon
a quarter of an ounce of cloves
ye sauce of mace
1 pound of sugar
8 large pippins
half a pint of verjuice
4 lemons juice and peal
half pint of Citron
as much lemon peal
quarterpint of rose water
half an ounce Carraway comfits
a small handful of salt
Chequers is a grand house nestled in the Chilterns, that is today associated with the Prime Minister. However, there are other things you should know about it:
-For 600 years from 1254, the Chequers Estate only changed hands by family inheritance. In 1912 that lineage came to an end…and it was presented to the Government for use as a country prime ministerial pas in 1917.
-The current building dates to the 1500s
-Buckinghamshire Archives has a collection of documents from Chequers, spanning 700 years of its history: 1250-1956, including deeds, diaries, wills, government papers
-By far the ‘best’ document is an 18th century recipe book
Historic recipe books are fantastic. For one thing, they are not what we would think of as recipe books today: instructions for making meals and condiments jostle for attention amidst recipes for making face wash, cures for fever and gout, and metal polish. Recipe books also record the word-of-mouth way that recipes were passed around, with sources often attributed. Indeed the festive recipe that we are looking at is Lady Eyre’s mince pies. We don’t know who Lady Eyre was, and frustratingly Bronte’s Jane Eyre makes Googling for an answer tricky. We don’t know much about the recipe book either, other than it came to us from Chequers. It is more likely that it belonged to a cook or housekeeper working there, but we can’t rule out that it may have belonged to a family member ‘above stairs’.
18th Century Minced Pies
Now, this recipe will not be for the kind of mince pie that you are used to. This pie contains not minced meat, but sirloin steak and/or veal. Most of the other ingredients will be familiar to you: suet, currants, cloves, mace, pippins (type of apple), caraway. Verjuice though? This was a sour juice made from under-ripe grapes, you can still purchase it today.
Mince Pies at Christmas
Nowhere does this recipe mention Christmas, but given the generally concise nature of this recipe, we should not rule out its yule-tide connections. Indeed it appears that this sort of recipe had been closely associated with Christmas festivities since the 1300s. From this date meaty mince pies were conventionally rectangular, to symbolise the manger that Jesus was placed in. It appears that it was during the Victorian era that meat disappeared from this festive favourite, and the shaped changed to a circle. The lack of instructions means we don’t know for sure, but given the date and the composition of the pie, it’s possibly that it was made in a rectangular shape.
Archivist's attempt at recreating a (meat-free) version of this recipe: