The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Variations on the Mince Pie

Every year, I do my utmost to avoid Mince Pies until, at least, the second week of December.  The description ‘warm mince pie’ always sounds far better than the factory produced supermarket offerings which frequent gatherings, events and parties at Christmas.

I believe that making your own is simple, far more satisfying and, it will certainly impress guests. Taking a pretty box tied up with ribbon to a friend’s house always proves successful. Which brings me onto the subject of making time for baking. Christmas is one of the socially busiest times of the year, and there are hundreds of recipes out there for homemade pasties, tried and tested – however I’m going to suggest using shop bought pastry – it’s time saving and perfectly good. The ideas below are based on shop-bought shortcrust, puff and filo – all include little upgrades to insure a perfect pie anytime. Mincemeat is something else which can be made at home, but it needs maturing, and unless you’ve made a batch in the summer (which I always forget to do) you come a little unstuck at Christmas. I often buy a really good quality ready made mincemeat and add to it, a couple of ‘twists’ here and there and you’re good to go. I have put together four very simple, but effective ideas – ensuring that the house will be filled with delicious Christmas scents, and you’ll still have time for that last minute shopping!

Fruity Mince Meat Crackers

Using Filo Pastry makes a crisp, lighter pie. I mix a jar of mincemeat with some chopped pear and chopped apple, this firms the mincemeat up nicely and provides more substance per bite. Take six slices of filo pastry, brush each piece with melted butted and layer three together, repeat with the next three slices, then cut in four rectangles (making 8). Place a spoon of mincemeat horizontally across each one (allowing a couple of centimetres clear either end), then roll into a sausage shape. Pinch in the ends to make little cracker shapes. Brush with melted butter.  Bake until golden brown (on a non-stick baking sheet) and serve with a good sprinkle of icing sugar mixed with a little cinnamon.

Marzipan and Mincemeat Swirls

Take one ready rolled sheet of puff pastry (or shortcrust) and unroll onto a floured board. Spread 1 400g jar of good mincemeat over the pastry. Grate 80g of marzipan onto the mincemeat. Roll the pastry horizontally until you have a ‘Swiss roll’ then pop into the freezer until well chilled – it will keep very well in the freezer until needed – simply take out and slice into disks of 1cm, place on a greased, non-stick baking sheet, brush on some beaten egg yolk, then scatter with silvered almonds and a little shake of  icing sugar. Bake at 180 degrees c until golden brown and serve warm

Pimped Up Pies

I’ve taken a little Italian inspiration for my Pimped Up Pies. One of my bugbears, when it comes to Mince Pies is avoiding a ‘soggy bottom’ – I have tried several methods to help prevent this, this is one of the most successful. Line a patty tin with ready rolled shortcrust pastry. Scatter 1/2 tsp of polenta into each pie then follow with 1/2 tsp of ground almonds, this forms a ‘pillow’ for the mincemeat. Mix one 400g jar of mincemeat with 1 tablespoon of Limoncello, add three of four chopped dates, and finally, the zest of one medium lemon. Fill the pies and top with pastry lids brushed with beaten egg,  bake until golden brown and served scattered with icing sugar and grated lemon zest.

Little Bakers Pies

Making Mince Pies with children is one of the family friendly aspects of the festive season which makes memories – we all remember helping our parents or grandparents in the kitchen; very clean hands, far-too-big apron. So why not get out the pastry cutters and top your pies with festive cut-outs, they can be decorated afterwards with silver balls, coloured icing or other treats. All you need to do is line a patty tin with pastry, put in a little mincemeat and let the little ones create. These also make great presents for family members too!


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Down Memory Lane

Growing up in the 1980s there were so many things which ‘made’ Christmas. One of the main questions being, were your family ‘Team Quality Street’ or ‘Team Roses’? My parents were firmly ‘Team Roses’, whilst my paternal Grandmother was ‘Team Quality Street’.Of course, this was in the day when a tin of chocolates was really made of tin and extremely generously filled with all the family favourites – however, the Strawberry creams were always left until well after the new year though, and often consigned to the bin as they were far too sweet.

I always enjoyed visiting my paternal Grandparents in the run up to Christmas; the left hand cupboard in the G-Plan sideboard would be slowly filling up – there would All Gold, Black Magic, Mint Matchmakers, Chocolate Orange, Chocolate Brazil Nuts, After Eights (with their own silver plated ‘trolley’), a tin of Quality Street and some York Fruits, always the gift of choice between my paternal Grandmother (Nan) and maternal Grandfather, who was rather challenged in the tooth department – I don’t think anybody ever actually liked York Fruits – finally there were those little lemon and orange slices, covered in sugar, in a little round box.

My Nan’s Christmas Cake was generously enrobed with almost rock hard ‘snow’ icing, topped with a 1950s plastic Christmas tree, a gold plastic ‘Season’s Greetings’ sign, and a pink crepe paper ruff adorning its middle. There would be a Bird’s Trifle with multi coloured sprinkles and homemade Chocolate Eclairs, the tins for which, I still have in my kitchen cupboard.

My maternal Grandparents, who lived in a tiny Victorian cottage near Newport, then in Gwent, celebrated Christmas in a far more relaxed way. Grandma would make cakes and plenty of mince pies, they would roast a chicken and enjoy the TV – there were no Christmas Trees or decorations save for one or two made at school by myself. Christmas was kept quietly, a few treats would be bought but Grandma was, as is still at 107, very thrifty.

Today, with so much choice all the year round, we have perhaps lost the magic of those days, the annual traditions which signified the opening of the season – although even now I wait in anticipation for the first satsumas to arrive, I still buy the bag of mixed nuts – although the carved wooden bowl which would sit with the nutcracker on the nested G-Plan tables in my Nan’s front room is long gone – I am still partial to a Bendicks or Elizabeth Shaw mint, although my tastes have naturally diversified, and a selection box (always one of my presents from my Gran) still appears in my son’s stocking.

I think, at Christmas, we do try to cling on to nostalgia and tradition a little more, especially as we get older – even though things probably weren’t better in the ‘olden days’, it’s still a comfort, to us, to believe they were!


Christmas Markets and Making Merry – All the fun of the festive fair!

This week heralds the beginning of the Christmas Market season and we are spoilt for IMG_5471choice in Monmouthshire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. I really enjoy visiting Christmas food festivals, they help get over the post Bonfire Night hump and provide the ideal excuse for a cheeky mulled wine or two, not to mention huge present shopping potential .

I have chosen five of my favourite (most) local festivals to take you through to the big day; already we have seen a couple of frosty mornings so here’s to winter and all it throws at us. These are not purely food festivals, many offer local crafts, musical entertainments and great street food; everything you need to get you into the festive spirit.

Abergavenny Christmas Fair  10th December 

IMG_7449The largest local Christmas Fair, Abergavenny Food Festival always holds the banner high when championing regional and artisanal produce. Two weeks before Christmas Day will find the Market Hall, and surroundings, packed with delectable festive delicacies, an excellent time to stock up on foodie gifts, drinks for those  Christmas Parties or nibbles for surprise guests. As always, expect the best of the best; it’s a great place to stock up on Christmas Sprits whilst putting you in the Christmas Spirit. There are several workshops and feasts taking place too, so please see the website for more details.

The Forest Showcase Christmas Food Festival 26th November 

This year’s Forest Showcase Christmas Festival is to be held at Beechenhurst Lodge in the IMG_7709heart of The Forest of Dean, a fairytale setting for any Christmassy event. There will be stalls, demonstrations, workshops, live music and children’s activities. Tickets cost £3 for adults and £2 for children, family tickets are also available. Expect local cider, festive bakes, local meats and cheeses and a plethora of yuletide goodies.

The Hereford Food and Advent Market Hereford Racecourse 2nd and 3rd December 

“The Hereford Food and Advent market will be a fun festive day out for all the family. Held at Hereford Racecourse on the 2nd and 3rd December 2017 from 10 am – 4pm. Cost £2 entry for adults and £1 for children . FREE parking.
We have a huge variety of food and drink suppliers and live music, where you can have lunch under a covered marquee area, and enjoy the German Christmas market atmosphere.
You can browse and purchase all sorts of Christmas gifts and visit Santa in his grotto. ( extra charge of £5 will apply )
Also available will be free craft workshops for adults and children, included in the entry price.
In addition we have a children’s creative workshop, run by The Creation Station where they can have fun with plate art, and Christmas baubles . Please visit the website and Facebook for details of The Christmas Keepsake Workshop.
Also available are fabulous Christmas wreath making workshops with Debbie from the Hibiscus rooms.”

Gloucester Quays Victorian Markets 16th-26th November, daily until 7pm

Gloucester Quays is a prime example of thoughtful regeneration. The docks, once one of fullsizeoutput_41athe busiest in England, went through a period of decay until being reborn as a fabulous tourist attraction offering everything from pubs, restaurants and bars through to designer shopping and even canal boat hire. The Victorian Christmas market is very beautiful, the little wooden booths offering gifts, regional foods, mulled wine, arts and crafts. It’s a lovely place to visit as dusk falls, when the Christmas lights reflect off the calm waters of the dock and, with a glass of mulled cider in hand you can explore this, most historic, of sites.

Taurus Crafts Christmas Markets  2,3,9,10,16,17th December Free Entry 

Taurus Crafts, near Lydney in Gloucestershire is part of The Camphill Village Trust, a charity which offers support and a community environment to people who may struggle with everyday challenges. Founded in Scotland, in 1939, the charity aims to help all, regardless of disability and its Taurus Crafts based community is a testament to its success. The Christmas Fair offers a holistic festive approach; food, drink, gifts, crafts and Christmas trees can all be found alongside music, choirs and activities. Full of little workshops and unusual, quirky stalls, Taurus Crafts is a really lovely place to pass a few hours being at one with Christmas, sipping hot chocolate and tucking into one of their delicious homemade cakes.