Published on 16 Dec 2012 Sections

Mince pies are recipe for festive giving

Public generosity is on the wane, according to new figures which show giving to charities has slumped. But some of the country’s top chefs have just raised almost £30,000 – by baking mince pies.

Chef Michel Roux Jr with mince pies

Charities are struggling to cope this Christmas: steep cuts in funds and a decline in donations mean one in six fear they could be forced to close. But one initiative – based entirely around mince pies – has captured the public imagination, raising tens of thousands of pounds in the process.

The Mince Pie Project was dreamt up last year by former City trader Peter Butler, who wanted to find a way of combining a new career in food with his entrepreneurial skills. A few dozen chefs signed up to the idea, promising to bake boxes of fifty one-off mince pies, to be auctioned for charity.

The online auction was a roaring success back in 2011, pulling in a grand total of £10,000 as the chefs vied with each other to attract the highest bids. The winner, Ashley Palmer-Watts from Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner restaurant, came up with some deep-fried pies which fetched £1,000.

I called it dark matter, not dough. Executive pastry chef Regis Cursan

This year, after news of the contest spread, a hundred of the country’s top chefs rushed to get involved and invented an incredible range of twists on the traditional mince pie. There were Italian ones, Indian spiced ones, Chelsea buns, and old-fashioned meat-based pies.

Michel Roux Jr, the two-star Michelin starred chef at London’s Le Gavroche, promised a “mega box” of 150 pies, made to his own unique recipe, although some of the creations were even more unusual.

Executive pastry chef Regis Cursan, from Michelin-starred Nobu London, is used to mixing Japanese minimalism with a modernist touch. He excelled himself with his pie – dreaming up a treat that resembled a piece of volcanic rock, with a ribbon of lava running through it.

Chef Regis Cursan

“I called it dark matter, not dough, and the inside is the mantle, so we are combining astrology and astronomy in one dish,” he said.

Sitting atop the pie were a couple of realistic-looking pebbles, made from coconut ash and meringue. That’s what a Michelin-starred mince pie looks like.

Cursan’s pies proved so popular, he put them on the menu at Nobu, and the heads of department at the restaurant all bought boxes of fifty for their families, donating the proceeds to the Mince Pie Project charities.

But most of the chefs decided to keep their creations for the winning bidders in the three-day auction, which took place online with a leader board showing who was out in front.

Dan Doherty, head chef at the London restuarant Duck and Waffle, insisted he wasn’t out to compete with his peers.

“I’m not like that, it’s just all in a good cause,” he said. He admitted that mince pies were not his favourite thing, but came up with a gingerbread spiked pastry, wrapped around a mincemeat whose ingredients he kept a close-guarded secret.

Others went down the savoury route, declaring the traditional spiced fruit filling to be “horrible”. The jovial Mat Follas, who uses wild, seasonal ingredients in his Dorset restaurant Wild Garlic, chose a mixture of venison and spiced red cabbage.

“It has that bit of sweetness in with the meat, which is what a mince pie should be: for me it should be savoury,” he said.

Mince pie marathon

As the auction gathered pace, and word spread around social media sites like Twitter, some of the chefs began offering extra inducements to attract more bids for their efforts. Some offered champagne, others promised to deliver the desserts by hand.

Another of Heston Blumenthal’s chefs, James “Jocky” Petrie, said he would go to the winning bidder’s house and bake his mince pies for them in person. In the end, though, thanks to a surge of large donations, the highest bid of all went to Duck and Waffle’s Doherty, with an astonishing £1,900 for his gingerbread creations.

The final total was more than £28,000, including donations to a raffle for Michel Roux Jr’s mega box, enough to keep an entire office happy. Colleagues at some big companies had organised whip-rounds to put together joint bids, while regular restaurant-goers had rallied behind their favourite chefs.

Now all the chefs have to do is bake their fifty pies, a week before Christmas, ready to be delivered to whoever posted the winning bids.

Mince pies for the auction

Even in these difficult times for the food industry, everyone involved, from Michel Roux Jr to Angela Hartnett and Raymond Blanc, gave their time and resources for free. Other sponsors helped with office space, phone bills, and web site support for the auction itself.

All the proceeds will go to the homeless organisation Crisis, and Galvin’s Chance, which helps deprived young people into work and training opportunities at some of the country’s top hotels.

Despite the struggle for some charities this Christmas then, encouraging news that there are still plenty of people prepared to give time, money and effort to an imaginative good cause.