The executive chef of The Ritz, John Williams, is classically trained and known for fine dishes such as Dover sole meuniere with wild mushrooms and Champagne sauce, or native lobster with caramelised endive and grapefruit.
On Christmas Day, some lucky guests will be tucking into his gala dinner, at a cost of £310 per person. You might expect him to be terribly posh. But he’s the son of a fisherman and he still speaks with the regional accent of Tyneside, where he was born. He’s chatty and friendly.
"I love mince pies," Williams says, running his eye across of 10 store-bought varieties he is going to try in The Ritz's basement kitchen. He is the latest in a line of chefs – including Heston Blumenthal, Marcus Wareing and Angela Hartnett – to conduct the Bloomberg Annual Mince Pie Taste Test, now in its eighth year.
Here’s how he rated the pies, in reverse order, with marks out of 10:
Sainsbury’s Blackcurrant & Cassis
Williams examines mini-stars sprinkled on top. "It must be some kind of edible foil. I’m not sure I like that but I’m quite old-fashioned in some of those things. It’s quite gooey, this one. It’s almost as if the fruit has been cooked down to a pulp. The filling is very sweet. I feel it’s overcooked and that citric-acid background taste is not so nice."
Price: 62.5 pence each
Lidl Snowy Lodge Luxury Mini
Williams tuts at the gap between the filling and the pastry. (He always refers to pastry as paste.) "As a customer, you are very much expecting a full pie. This doesn’t give off much aroma, the fruit or the spicing. The paste is quite short. It isn’t bad. It’s a little bit firm for me. It’s not too sweet but everything together it lacks character and flavor."
Price: 12.4 pence each mini-pie
Marks & Spencer Christmas Star
"It's quite a nice presentation having the star on top and the fruit bubbling over. The paste is quite good, but a bit characterless. I'm not happy with the fruit because it has a citric acid background to it. That's not something that I like, and the spicing isn't there. It's not bad but it's certainly not something that I would rush out and buy."
Price: 41.7 pence each
Pret a Manger
"It doesn't have a nice appetising look to it. The paste is very short indeed and it's crumbly. It's not one that excites me. I'm not a lover of the paste or the filling. It has the essence of Christmas spice but not too strong. The sweetness is not quite there, with a very slight acidity. I would like to see a little more spice in there."
Price: £1.30 each
"The paste is too thick. It absorbs a lot of the flavor. There's a slight orange aftertaste as well, rather than spicing. So they are looking at it slightly different. I would just like to see that a little bit smaller, a little thinner paste and this would probably be better. They could refine that by making the recipe a little bit smaller and finer."
Price: £1.59 each
Co-Op Luxury All Butter
"It's crimped nicely. The paste looks quite nice. It's quite crumbly, which is good, and there are large pieces of fruit inside. It does have a nice spicing to it but I do find it a little bit sweet. Pastry? It's quite nice. It's buttery. It's crumbly and it has a real good texture, and the amount of cooking is good."
Price: 33.3 pence each
Waitrose All Butter
"This is very similar to the style that we do: very simple. I like the way it crumbles but doesn’t fall apart. It's quite fruity. It's a bit too sweet, but overall it is a nice pie. They just need to look at the filling in the amount of sugar and that would be bursting with a lot more flavor, or cut it with a little touch of apple, which is what we do."
Price: 41.7 pence each
Heston From Waitrose Spiced Shortcrust
"There's a pronounced smell of cinnamon and tangerine or mandarin. It's quite firm. It's clever. It's different. The cinnamon is actually giving and giving. Also, the powder on top is releasing its oil to give you that tangy flavor in the background. The fruit is not so sweet. It's a different way of looking at a mince pie in every way. It's very good."
Price: 58.3 pence each
Harrods Fresh Traditional
"Nice soft paste in the center and you see the way the fruit has sunk into the paste, which is a good thing. Nice spicing. This one has a little bit less sugar. More fruit: quite fruity in flavor. That paste is excellent. It's tasty isn’t it? It just has a little bit less spice to allow the fruit to pronounce itself. Very nice indeed. It's very traditionally finished."
Price: £1.65 each
Fortnum & Mason Traditional
"The paste is very very crumbly. That is a very good sign. The pastry smells delicious, it really does. And do you notice the thickness of the paste on top? It absorbs some of the fruit essence and the spicing. It's very good. This crumb is wonderful and soft and I presume there is a little paste of almond in there and vanilla. And honestly it's a lovely, lovely flavor. Sweetness correct: it is sweet but it's not oversweet. For me that is a lovely tasting mince pie."
Price: £13.95 for six (£2.33 each)
Article by Richard Vines, chief food writer for Bloomberg. Edited by European Supermarket Magazine.