In his weekly blog, Konditor & Cook’s Gerhard Jenne has been tickling his seasonal tastebuds with a mince pie taste test.
Consumer magazine Which? has just published a taste test on premium supermarket mince pies. I was one of the panellists, along with experts Dan Lepard, Will Torrent and Lake District baker Patrick Moore.
This was my first foray into a Which? tasting, and I was impressed with the military-like operation.
First, we were given a benchmark mince pie to taste, helping to set the standard and to hone our scoring skills before we were let loose on the real thing. All the pies were presented to us warmed, according to their advertised serving instructions. Each pie had been given a code and each panellist got to try a different one in every round, so that no one could influence the other.
There was a fair amount of umm-ing and ahhh-ing going on as we munched our way through 12 regular pies and four gluten-free ones each.
After each round, our score sheets were collected and entered into a computer, which, several hours later, spat out the result.
It was noted that we were a very well-balanced panel, obviously looking out for the same things in a mince pie, and had come up with very similar scores on appearance, taste, texture and an overall score for each one. The gluten-free ones were also checked for their ability to pass as regular mince pies.
I know it wasn’t always so, but in the modern tradition a good mince pie should be made with buttery pastry and baked to a golden brown colour. The texture should be short, with the pie holding together. The filling ought to be fruity and moist, vegetarian with an optional splash of seasonal tipple.
Furthermore, the ratio of filling and pastry should be balanced and, when eaten, the pie should not clump up in the mouth. I also look out for a moreish quality. It’s good from a sales point of view if a customer says, ‘I couldn’t stop eating them’.
Certainly for my company, sales of mince pies play a crucial part in delivering some profit before Christmas that help cushion the usually sluggish start into the New Year. And one has a reputation to maintain too.
From magazines to social media, everyone has an opinion on mince pies and we all might have a story of having had a good one, but more likely we can tell the story of a real baddy.
For me, this was over 20 years ago. I was served a porker of a pie in a Pimlico brasserie at a Christmas dinner. It was so dry I thought they were early adopters of some sort of recycling scheme and used brown cardboard instead of pastry. The filling - “What filling?” - consisted of a few dead flies, well raisins really, but they tasted as if they had drowned in lemon-flavoured toilet cleaner.
No wonder so many people always say to me that they hated mince pies until they tried ours. And it’s great fun to see how such a common pastry is interpreted in so many different ways.
The other day I tasted one from artisanal bakery Flourish. Rather than making them round, they were made from cut squares of pastry and the mincemeat folded into little pockets, not too dissimilar to the traditional Jewish pastry Hamantaschen. This is a new and very efficient approach to mince pies.
Following the taste test, the bakers at Aldi will be leaving the production line rolling just a little bit longer as they scored the highest and were also the cheapest.
I personally thought an artisanal pie from Marks & Spencer was the biggest threat to a craft baker’s offer. They weren’t the usual stamped-out type, but had really thin pastry that appeared hand-cut, and each pie had minor irregularities. The filling was also tasty and generous. Dressed with a little icing sugar, I reckon quite a few of these will be passed on as home-baked this season.
Meanwhile, the most expensive one from Fortnum & Mason came with a lot of faults, from pastry to hidden cavities, and scored the lowest.
With a price difference ranging from £1.69 to £12.95 for six pies, this leaves quite a lot of room for bakers in Britain to positions themselves.
Happy seasonal baking!