The kuskenole: genesis of the Christmas mince pie

If you want to make and eat the real forebear of the modern mince(meat) pie, that sweet and spicy, perennial delight of the British Christmas, then look no further than the Anglo-Norman Kuskenole!

Never mind the wondrous, and rather big, Christmas pies of Tudor and Stuart England that incorporated actual shredded meat – such as mutton and veal – into their fillings, the English were making individual Yuletide pastries, dainty by comparison, over two centuries earlier. And, what’s more, there wasn’t a morsel of minced flesh to be seen!

Kuskenoles were small, sealed, rectangular pasties that were par-boiled before being griddled. When I first recreated them, I noted how they tasted remarkably like modern mince pies, though a little less sweet and without the booziness of fortified wines or spirits typical of today.

You can see me making gluten-free versions here last Christmas:

Their filling is reasuringly familiar: figs, raisins, pears, apples, dates and almonds, merrily bashed together and enlivened with ‘good powder’ of ‘good spices’. The spices to be used were of the cook’s choosing. But typical of this period in English elite cuisine (13th and 14th centuries) were ginger, cinnamon and cloves; nutmeg, mace and cardamon were also used. All or some of these often find their way into modern mincemeat, too.

The pastry of the kuskenole was not the cardboardesque, flour-and-water variety typical of medieval recipes but rather a tasty egg-enriched crust which was most probably meant to be eaten, and so not simply serving as a container for the goodies within. Both the earlier Anglo-Norman recipe, dating to the end of the thirteenth century, and the Middle English translation thereof – rendered in the plural as ‘cuskynoles’ and dating to the early part of the fourteenth century – state clearly to make the ‘paste’, or dough, using eggs.

Kuskenoles are first documented in England in the late thirteenth century, long before the usual candidates for the ‘original’ mince pie were dreamed up.

It is the later of these two recipes that helps us understand that kuskenoles/cuskynoles became a Christmas treat. After describing the number of ‘perties’, or pieces, into which the rolled-out pastry was to be cut, each measuring ‘a palm and a half’ by ‘three fingers’, and into which the sweet stuffing was to be placed, the instruction is given to fold these pieces in the Yule manner.  

Admittedly rather ambiguous 700 years after it was penned, this directive does nevertheless point to the invoking of a Christmastime tradition. Perhaps the Yule, or Yuletide, manner alluded to the final rectagular shape of the pastries, somewhat vaguely resembling the manger of the Christchild. More assuredly, this instruction confirms that some English folk were indeed cooking and eating spiced fruit pastries at Christmas long before they became known as mince pies.

In my more anachronistic – and rather daft – moments, I like to imagine medieval cooks singing a Christmas carol as they created these little fold-over pies. From which I hastily move on… and offer you a Christmas freebie: my modern medieval version of Christmas Cuskynoles, including a Gluten-free option.

Please do have a go, and send me your pictures!

Season’s greetings

Christopher

Bibliography

Published by Christopher Monk

Dr Christopher Monk is creating Modern Medieval Cuisine

14 thoughts on “The kuskenole: genesis of the Christmas mince pie

  1. You are ignoring the fact that cuskynoles are one of the few recipes in the corpus — I think one of two — that come with a picture, and one that your redaction is inconsistent with.

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  2. The diagrams appear to differ between the Anglo-Norman and Middle English manuscripts (I’m basing this on the reconstructions in the editions of both). So there isn’t consistency and clarity in the medieval sources. So my interpretation is valid, I’d suggest.

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  3. I made some of these last week. We were supposed to be performing at the Ludlow Medieval Christmas Fair, but that got wrecked by Storm Arwen, and I thought my fellow performers might like a genuine medieval treat.
    I got the recipe by working through last year’s YouTube video. I used the strong flour as suggested rather than the gluten free. The pastry came out rather tough although the filling was very nice. Would they have had strong flour back then. I thought we could only grow soft wheat in England until the modern varieties were developed.

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    1. I think the key thing if using wheat flour is not to over-work the dough as you end up activating the gluten too much. It becomes tough as a result. I did develop the recipe using stoneground white flour from Skipton Mill. I had no problem with toughness. In my written recipe I’ve stressed that you really only need to lightly knead the dough, enough to bring it together. On the video I say knead for 3 minutes; perhaps this implied heavy kneading. Sorry if that’s how you understood it. I don’t remember using ‘strong’ to describe the flour. I think it’s hard to be precise about types of grains and their properties in medieval England. It isn’t my area of expertise though.

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    2. Just to add: I’m wondering if you may have misheard what I said in the video. I said I was using gluten-free *bread* flour, what one might call strong flour, though in fact it’s a blend contsining xanthan gum. Strong flour in the context of wheat flour does refer to bread flour and I wouldn’t recommend it for a pastry. I hope this has clarified the matter.

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  4. That might well be the case, mishearing the flour type. I was intending to have another go at some point anyway, to try a softer flour, and this has confirmed that decision. I will report back! (No idea when I’ll get the chance, mind.)

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    1. Great! I look forward to hearing how you get on. Maybe a pic? Just one final thing on ‘strong flour’: when I did my O Level cookery I was taught to use strong bread flour when making flakey pastry. This is because the dough gets handled more robustly and is stretched to some degree; so you need to activate the gluten. This cuskenole egg dough needs a more gentle handling.

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  5. Sorry if you’re getting this message twice – my wifi keeps blanking out – but wanted to say thanks for the recipe, the history of it and the etymology of the name ‘kuskenole’.

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