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Christmas at Sea

'Tis the season, and all that sort of thing. There are not many Christmas feasts in the Aubrey/Maturin novels, nor is there much variety in the fare—but such as it is we present it here.

Christmas at sea can be a fairly depressing business, and as often as not it is signalized by little more than a double ration of salt pork and plum duff.

Despite our best efforts, we have been unable to reproduce some of the more exotic Christmas dinners. We could not obtain the salted penguins and "the wrong kind of turtle" eaten to such dramatic effect in The Mauritius Command; not to mention the porpoises, "rather strangely jointed by the ship's butcher," which "were served out for Christmas dinner and declared better, far better, than roast pork" in The Yellow Admiral.

We have had to content ourselves with Goose (shown here in the guise of Goose and Truffle Pie), Roast Pork, Ship's Biscuits (weevils not shown), Rum-Punch, Christmas Pudding, and of course the featured recipe, Mince Pie.

Goose & Truffle Pie

Goose & Truffle Pie
Goose and Truffle Pie

Roast Pork
Roast Pork

Ship's Biscuits
Ship's Biscuits

Rum Punch
Rum Punch

Christmas Pudding
Christmas Pudding

Mince Pies
'I will just see my people aboard,' said Jack... When he reached the cabin, Captain Lambert was calling for 'a glass of brandy, there, and mince pies; but only small ones, d'ye hear me, only small ones,' ... 'What did he mean by mince pies? ... Mince pies. Why, of course: it must be Christmas in a day or two.'
- The Far Side of the World, p. 102

Mince pies are indelibly associated with Christmas. Indeed, until the mid-17th Century, they were known exclusively as Christmas Pies—they were usually rectangular, to represent the cradle of Jesus, and the dried fruits and spices were supposed to symbolize the Gifts of the Magi. The Christmas Pie of Little Jack Horner was a mince pie, though in his case it contained something more than meat and fruit. Sir John Horner was responsible for the delivery of a Christmas Pie to Henry VIII; and the plum he pulled out was the deed to a piece of confiscated church property—one of several hidden beneath the crust.

Under Puritan rule, Christmas Pies were briefly outlawed as emblems of Popery, but they resurfaced shortly afterward in less controversial guise, as Mince or Shrid (Shred) Pies. Under any name, they represent a very old tradition—the practice of preserving meat by combining it with dried fruits, spices, sugars, and alcohol dates back at least as far as medieval times, and may even have originated in ancient Rome.

Today, alas, mincemeat has lost something in translation—too often it is neither minced nor meat—but in Aubrey's time it was still faithful to its roots.

[Note: the two pastry recipes mentioned below appear elsewhere in Lobscouse and Spotted Dog and are not reproduced here to save space—but you can substitute any good short pie crust and/or any puff paste.]

2 recipes (1 pound) Short Pastry
1/2 recipe (1/2 pound) Puff Paste
1 quart Mincemeat (see below)

Mint Spies
  • Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

  • On a lightly floured board, with a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out the short pastry until it is about 1/8-inch thick. Cut the sheet of pastry into 4 circles big enough to line 4 small pie dishes (the ones we use are 4 1/2 inches in diameter).

  • Fill the pies with mincemeat.

  • Re-flour the board and rolling pin, and roll out the puff paste until it is 1/8-inch thick. Cut 4 circles slightly larger than the pie dishes. Cut a small hole in the center of each, and place them on the pies. Crimp the edges together.

  • Bake 10 minutes, then turn the oven down to 350 degrees for about 20 minutes.

  • Makes 4 small pies.


3 pounds shin of beef
1 pound suet, finely grated
1/2 pound currants
1/4 pound raisins
1/4 pound sultanas
1/2 cup candied orange peel, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup candied citron, coarsely chopped
1 pound tart apples, peeled, cored and coarsely chopped (about 3 cups)
juice and coarsely chopped zest of 1 lemon
juice and coarsely chopped zest of 1 Seville orange
2 tablespoons grated ginger
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon mace
1 teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons nutmeg
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cider
1/2 cup brandy
1/2 cup red wine

Finished Mince Pies. Yum!
  • Put the beef in a pot with water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, covered, 2 hours, or until the meat is tender enough to fall off the bone.

  • Take the meat out of the pot (you may want to season and save the stock, as we do, for future use). When it is cool enough to handle, remove and discard the bones, fat and gristle. You should have about 1 pound of meat.

  • Shred or coarsely chop the meat, and mix it thoroughly with all the other ingredients. Put the mincemeat in a sealed container and set it to ripen in a cool dark place. It will be ready for use after about 2 weeks... or it can be refrigerated for several months (ours has been aging for about a year now, and it gets a little more interesting every day).

  • Makes about 3 quarts.

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