The first thing I learned to bake was shortbread. I was good at bread-crumbing the butter and flour together because of my tiny fingers and evidently high boredom threshold. Next was flapjack, for which my special job was to press the sticky oat mixture into the tin with the back of a spoon. My mum claimed that it was my pressure-application skills that made the flapjack taste so good and I was filled with pride and eager to expand my repertoire. Brownies came next, and birthday cakes and tiffin and crumbles and profiteroles and pavlova. Tiramisu became my speciality.
When I read Chocolat by Joanne Harris my baking world transformed. Unlike the terrible film adaptation starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche, the book had me rapt. The story sets up an opposition between the indulgent sorcery of chocolate and the abstemious piety of the Catholic church. Harris’ protagonist Vianne Rocher, the chocolatier with the tarot cards and the pagan leanings, transformed bakery for me from a cosy weekend comfort to a socially acceptable form of witchcraft.
The book is set during Lent and culminates in the gluttony of Easter, finally tempting the whole town into sugared debauchery. For me, however, Christmas is by far the most indulgent time of the year; Advent calendars, chocolate tree decorations, tins of Cadbury’s Roses, selection box after selection box from distant relatives and scores and scores of mince pies.
In the rose tint of my childhood memories, December is one long baking marathon, with carols playing softly in the background. I would help my mum by dolloping teaspoons of mince mix onto small pastry circles and then carefully placing the pie lid on top. Some would be given away as presents, some kept for us and some, inevitably, taken to the church Christmas fair.
My brother and I bemoaned any removal of baked goods from our house, but giving up sweet treats to the church fair was always the loss we felt most keenly.
The prevalence of church duties around Christmas Day itself meant that the fair was always held as early as possible in December before anyone was in the mood. The cake stall was in a separate room and made up of lengths of trestle tables, camouflaged in festive paper tablecloths and over-burdened with flaccid baked consumables. The biscuits, cakes and, of course, mince pies were placed on foil and paper plates that greased and wilted as the day wore on. There are few things less sexy than a church cake stall.
Traditionally the mincemeat of mince pies was imbued with some religious meaning by having thirteen set ingredients to signify Jesus and the twelve disciples. And the potent concoction of spices were not intended to titillate, but just to mask the taste of the old meat originally included in the mince. These days the ingredients (sans meat) are a free for all and the pie itself has been fetishised by Marks & Spencer, among others, to something much more akin to Vianne’s pagan chocolate vision.
As a child, I struggled to match the beige pie army atop a fold-away table with the fragrant French patisserie of my dreams; these two opposing forces of religious tradition and alluring exoticism. But perhaps the answer was within the mince pie itself: a crisp plain exterior hiding an inner treasure trove of candied fruits and heady spices, the restrained and the fanciful united in a single bite.
Image credit: Vincentennial Cookblog