As I walked home with my children this dark evening, it was not difficult to imagine the fears of people long ago as they watched the disappearing hours of sunlight. The coming winter solstice was truly a time of celebration for them, bringing the promise of light to save their life-sustaining crops from darkness.
Here in Devon, ancient solstice festivities remain in the form of wassailing, or toasting the health of the orchard trees. Apples have long been an important part of the local economy in the West Country, so this is a serious event (despite its drunken appearance!). Gifts of cakes and cider are placed in the boughs and poured over the roots of the apple trees with much dancing and singing to safeguard the new crop of fruit.
“Apple tree prosper, bud, bloom and bear,
That we may have plenty of cider next year.
And where there’s a barrel, we hope there are ten,
That we may have cider when we come again.
With our wassail, wassail, wassail!
And joy come to our jolly wassail!”
The symbolic origins of fruits, nuts, oats and straw at this time of year can also be traced to yuletide attempts to ensure the protection of crops, fodder and grain. Fruit cake, plum pudding and mincemeat are modern-day cousins of Keltebrot, a celebratory solstice cake made from nuts, raisins, figs and dried pears.
It was only last year that I made mincemeat for the first time. All through my childhood, I had avoided mince pies believing them to be ‘Yuk’ (as my daughters say). However, with two children and a third on the way, I felt some maternal urge last December to make something ‘Chrismassy’ for my family. Fruit cakes were out – my husband’s not too keen on them. Christmas pudding? There were no takers. Mincemeat was the only option that met with approval, despite my own aversion to mince pies.
As I read through different recipes, I slowly began to wonder exactly what it was I disliked so intensely about mincemeat. The ingredients themselves posed no problem – indeed, they sounded truly delicious. Apples, raisins, sultanas, currants, spices, brandy … and then I realized. Candied peel. Store-bought, dry, soapy, sickly-sweet candied peel.
Last year, I made my own candied peel for the first time too (see my photo tutorial). And I discovered that I love mince pies!
It is now a year later and my unborn son-on-the-way of last year has just yummed up his first ever mince pie … with no left-overs. I have four jars of mincemeat (recipe by Delia Smith) in my cupboard and more to give away as presents.
And so, I am sending all my online friends my warmest holiday wishes with a batch of homemade mince pies (complete with zingy, citrusy, homemade candied peel).
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups water
Separate the peel from the oranges and lemons, reserving the juice for use as needed in mincemeat recipe.
Use a teaspoon to scrape as much of the white pith as possible away from the peel.
Place the scraped peel in a saucepan and fill with enough water to float the peel. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes.
Drain the peel, refill the saucepan with water, bring to the boil and simmer for a further 10 minutes.
Repeat this process a third time, then drain and leave the peel to cool.
Use scissors to cut the peel into thin strips.
Place the sugar and water in a saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the strips of peel. Simmer on a low heat until there is no more than a couple of spoonfuls of syrup left in the saucepan. Watch carefully at this stage to ensure the peel does not burn.
Use a fork to spread the peel on wire racks to cool. These can be placed in an ever-so-slightly warmed oven to speed the drying.
The dried candied peel can be stored in airtight jars, dipped in chocolate or used in a multitude of different recipes, including those for mincemeat.