Fortnum & Mason is one of the biggest names in British food, and the store’s mince pies often score high marks, but not here.
In a blind tasting by pastry chef Claire Clark, they came last, beaten by supermarket varieties costing a fraction of the price. Top marks went to an unusual, lemon-flavoured variety created for Waitrose by chef Heston Blumenthal.
Mince pies are a Christmas treat that just won’t go away. You can trace their history for hundreds of years, and a recipe dating from 1747 – featuring currants, raisins, apples, sugar and peel – is not that different from those of today, according to the BBC.
How to choose the best, when almost every store and coffee shop is selling them? The prices vary considerably, and a prestige brand is no guarantee of quality. For a decade now, Bloomberg has been organising blind tastings with leading chefs. The first, in 2007, was by Blumenthal himself.
Clark is one of the biggest names in the pastry world. Since starting her career at the Ritz in London, she has worked at some of the most respected restaurants in the world, including five years as head pastry chef at the French Laundry, in Yountville, California.
Along the way, she has set up the pastry kitchen at the House of Commons, appeared as a judge on TV baking shows and opened the Claire Clark Academy. She did the tasting at Pretty Sweet, the high-end patisserie company she owns with fellow chef Sarah Crouchman.
Clark says that she likes her mince pies to be filled with plump raisins and sultanas, well spiced, and with at least a drop of booze, so what did she make of the store-bought options?
Heston From Waitrose Spiced With A Lemon Twist (75 pence/$1)
“I love it. It is so different, so innovative, yet it is still a mince pie. The base is a bit like a lebkuchen (German Christmas cookie). It’s not, but it’s got that kind of spice to it. It’s got a lovely balance of spices and fruit, and it is soft and crunchy. It’s got a lovely texture. The fruit has been cooked down so it’s almost like a paste, and you’ve got a lovely lemon gel, which is quite refreshing. It’s not sharp, sharp. It’s almost like a grapefruity, lemony sort of balance to it, and then the crumble on top. It’s Heston? Clever old Heston.” 9/10
Asda Extra-Special All-Butter Crumble (33 pence)
“It looks different, so that is interesting. I quite like that. It’s crisp when you cut it, with quite a lot of filling. I like that, too. I like the texture of the pastry. I like the crumble topping. It’s good. It’s not liquid. It’s mostly fruit, nice and spicy. It’s quite nicely balanced as well – not too sweet. It’s probably controversial that both my favourites have crumble on. Asda? That’s amazing.” 8/10
Marks & Spencer All Butter (30 pence)
“There is a nice star in the middle, and it cuts quite nicely. I like that one. The fruit is moist and spicy – big, fat, plump – and the pastry is quite good, buttery. There is a lot going on. It is nicely balanced. Not too bad.” 7.5/10
Lidl Luxury (25 pence)
“They look quite pretty, don’t they, with a little star? It’s crisp. It’s got texture to it. The pastry is nice and thin, and you’ve got more filling than pastry, which is quite pleasant. It’s a good colour. It’s a nice bake. You can see raisins and currants and other nice big fruit in it as well, but it could be a bit more seasonally spiced. I can’t say I like it or I dislike it. It’s generic, but it is really good value.” 7/10
Waitrose All Butter (42 pence)
“There are a few too many currants for my liking, and they are gritty, but the pastry is lovely. It’s quite thin. I prefer them like that. It’s more balanced. There is some alcohol in there, I’d say. That is good. I don’t know if the others have, but that is the only time I have tasted it. That is not bad.” 6.5/10
“The pastry is actually very nice, nice and crumbly. The pastry eats well even though it is shortbready and it is thick. This does taste spicy, but I just don’t like that it’s not got much filling to pastry, and not enough fruit in the filling.” 6/10
“It’s a lot of pie, but it looks good. Look at all that juicy fruit in there. Really nice and soft mix, and loads and loads of sultanas and raisins and a little bit of peel, but it’s lacking in spice. It looks so inviting, but it tastes bland.” 5.5/10
Pret A Manger (£1.35)
“I like the star on top, dusted with icing sugar. The pastry is nice and soft, but look at the filling. There’s no liquid. It is all congealed together. It looks like it’s got a lot of mixed peel in it, rather than fruit. It’s like it’s got cake crumbs to pad it out. All I can taste is peel, but not much fruit or anything else.” 5/10
Fortnum & Mason Traditional (£1.82)
“It looks very big, and I don’t like that filling. It’s just too soft. It is very light pastry, and it all binds together to the same texture as the filling. It doesn’t really taste of much, mostly little currants. Not many juicy fruits. It’s too dry. I’m going to offend someone – a big manufacturer – and I'll never be asked to do anything ever again. It’s Fortnum & Mason? [Gasps.]” 4/10