Christmas crackers: Putting festive favourites to the test

The best seasonal fare from pate and brandy butter to biscuits and plum puddings

 

PATE

Deluxe British Farmhouse Pate
€3.49 for 200g, €17.45 per kg
We liked the terracotta dish this pate came in even if it has now joined the bajillion other terracotta dishes that clutter up Pricewatch’s life. It is a product made with British chicken and pork liver, British pork shoulder, smoked British ham as well as a Cumberland sauce. Now, we have nothing against Britain, even in the Brexit maelstrom it is making us all live through, but is it really the home of great pate and is it necessary for the word British to appear on the front of what is a very small box six times? It seems wantonly excessive to us. As promised, the pate is coarse with some surprisingly large chunks of meat in the mix. It is quite salty - and all the better for it - and the gelatinous Cumberland sauce is pleasant enough. We like the price although it does lack a little in terms of luxury.
Verdict: A bit ordinary
Star rating: * * *

Avoca Chicken Liver Pate
€5.25 for 170g, €30.88 per kg
This is an excellent product on almost every level. We liked its freshness and the fact that it was made with free range chicken. It is very meaty and the pink peppercorn and thick butter coating that sits on top is a pleasantly luxurious touch. It is smooth and rich and bursting with subtle flavours and is just the kind of product that, if you decanted it carefully and were an unscrupulous sort, you could almost claim as your own. It is on the very pricey side but it’s not like you’d be eating a whole lot of it so your budget might stretch this far.
Verdict: Lovely.
Star rating: * * * *

Marks & Spencer Duck and Port Parfait
€7.50 for six servings (apparently)
Have you any idea what is the difference between a parfait and a pate? If you do, then you are a better person than Pricewatch. We spent far too long scouring the web trying to establish what makes one one and the other the other and we’re still not entirely clear although we think a parfait is creamier and airier than a pate. That is neither here nor there. What matters is the quality and this scores highly. It is lovely and one we ate a lot more of than was strictly speaking necessary for review purposes. The Cranberry and Sloe Gin glaze seemed well over the top when we saw it listed among the ingredients but it is excellent and we would almost have been happy to eat that all on its own. It was smooth and creamy and full of rich flavours.
Verdict: Pretty lovely too
Star rating: * * * *

Simply Better Handmade Irish Free Range Chicken Liver Pate
This is an Irish-made product that has won all sorts of awards for Dunnes Stores and deservedly so. It is a proper pate that is full of strong flavours. It is meaty and garlicky and herby and will sit happily on any piece of toast. Like the product from Avoca, Dunnes – and its producers – deserve praise for using free range chickens in the production process and they deserve praise for making something that will make even the most discerning of pate-aficionados happy this festive season.
Verdict: Gorgeous
Star rating: * * * * *

BRANDY BUTTER

Deluxe Traditional Irish Brandy Butter: €1.99

Far too often when we study the ingredient lists of products we find all sorts of mysterious things but that was not the case here. The ingredient list is very pure and all that you will find in the jar is sugar, butter and brandy. It is made with 6 per cent French brandy, which makes it one of the more sober brandy butters we tried. This is a great value-for-money product and while it is cheaper than much of the competition, it certainly doesn’t taste it. It is sweet and smooth and surprisingly creamy. We do have one issue with it. It is lacking a real brandy kick and, ultimately, that lets it down. It’s still nice, mind.
Verdict: Too sober
Star rating: * * *

Dunnes Stores Simply Better Handmade Brandy Butter
We are always suspicious when we see the word handmade on a product found sitting on a large retailer’s shelves but in this case our suspicions appear to have been completely unfounded as this genuinely does taste handmade. It has a brilliantly boozy kick to it and 11 per cent of what you will get in the jar is brandy, and Courvoisier Cognac brandy at that. It is light and fluffy and the closest thing to fresh brandy butter that we have ever seen coming out of a jar. The addition of bourbon vanilla in the mix could have gone wrong for the makers and it could have had an overpowering effect but it actually works really well. This will make any plum pudding better.
Verdict: We loved it.
Star rating: * * * * *

Avoca €5.30
Avoca also makes a fresh brandy butter but we thought we would give the jarred version a spin. We’re not entirely sure that was a good idea. This is made with 8 per cent brandy which is more than most of its rivals although we reckon the sugar in the mix ended up overpowering the alcohol every so slightly. It was very sweet and its almost grainy texture was a bit disappointing when compared with its smoother rivals. It is by no means unpleasant – we can’t imagine any Avoca products are, really – but it did struggle in the face of stiff competition from brands that sell for less. And speaking of price, we thought it odd that the jarred Avoca brandy butter was a good bit more expensive than the fresh version, which is made with 20 per cent brandy and is a lot smoother and fresher tasting too.
Verdict: A bit disappointing
Star rating: * * *

Marks & Spencer Brandy Butter €2.90
This was the only fresh brandy butter we tried although its freshness does not make as much a difference to its taste profile as you might imagine. We liked this a lot although it was nowhere near as boozy as the Simply Better option. In fact, all its flavours – the brandy, the butter and the sugar – were all more subtle than we found elsewhere. And that might actually be to its credit as it might complement rather than dominate a bowl of Christmas pudding. And if you want more booze, sure you can always add it yourself.
Verdict: Low key but lovely
Star rating: * * * *

BISCUITS

Aldi’s Belmot Chocolate Biscuit Selection €3.99

We were not entirely sure that biscuits from Aldi really screamed it’s Christmas but we were also concerned that by thinking that we were bringing bias to our reviews. So we decided to give these a whirl with an open mind. We were promised extremely chocolatey biscuits and, to be fair to Aldi, there is a lot of chocolate in the box and some of the biscuits are absolutely smothered in the stuff. The dark chocolate ring was lovely and, for us at any rate, the stand-out biscuit in the selection. There are 12 different varieties in the box which makes it sound like you will be spoiled for choice but the reality is it all gets a bit samey after a while. We’d not be rubbing our hands with Christmassy glee at the thought of eating these but they’ll be grand if we have any visitors over the festive season.
Verdict: A bit dull
Star rating: * *

Favorina Extremely Chocolatey from Lidl €3.99
Okay, so, here’s the thing. Aldi and Lidl are not the same company and, despite what many people think, they are fierce rivals which compete fiercely for market share in all the markets in which they operate. And here’s the other thing, both retailers used the phrase “extremely chocolatey” on their packaging which caused us to arch an eyebrow. The other eyebrow was arched when we opened this box and realised the biscuits were identical in every single way to the ones from Aldi. So all the same criticisms and kind words apply here. We also think that if the two retailers want to make it clear that they are entirely different, they should get those who make their products to make them slightly different if only to create the impression we are making a choice.
Verdict: A bit dull too
Star rating: * *

Tesco Finest Belgian Biscuit Selection
The people at Tesco could teach those who made Aldi and Lidl’s biscuits a thing or two about chocolate. There is not as much of it on any of this biscuit selection but what is there is a whole lot better and, to be honest, there is such a thing as too much chocolate on a biscuit. The actual biscuits in this tin are nice too, lighter and more crumbly. The only real issue we had was the fact that it was too easy to eat too many of them.
Verdict: Excellent
Star rating: * * * * *

PLUM PUDDINGS

The Marker Hotel Pudding €15

In pure taste terms, this pudding from the five-star hotel in Dublin is the best although it turned out to be a close run thing between it and a far more widely available rival. It is rich and bursting with flavour, the fruits are juicy and sweet and the alcohol kick is spot on. It will make for a wonderful Christmas dessert and, because it is so heavy, you’ll probably be able to make it last by doling out the smallest of portions. And well you might because for all its wonderfulness, it is not cheap. And it won’t be easy to get your hands on either as sales are confined to the hotel itself.
Verdict: A pudding to relish

Star rating: * * * * *

Tesco 6-month matured Christmas pudding
We liked our first taste of this pleasingly old-school sticky pudding and we liked its price and the ease with which people would be able to get their hands on it. The fruit is big and juicy and it has a nice texture. It does struggle, however, when compared to the freshly made options we tried. It can’t really compete in pure taste terms with the puddings made by small producers here and after a couple of mouthfuls it started to taste overly processed. It is made with 9 per cent cider and 4.5 per cent brandy and while that does not make it the most alcoholic of the puddings we tried, it did smell like a distillery.
Verdict: Only alright
Star rating: * * *

Dunnes Stores Simply Better Christmas Pudding
This product is made in Carlow and is top notch. The ingredients tell us it has been made with Greek currants and Californian raisins which is pleasingly specific. You will also get 5 per cent French brandy, 4 per cent cider and 3.2 per cent Cognac – again a pleasingly specific distinction. In our blind taste test with colleagues in The Irish Times newsroom – where were they when we were reviewing pot noodles, that’s what we want to know – this pudding won by a landslide. It is beautifully sticky and moist and full of complex flavours. Be careful though, it is easy to overeat this.
Verdict: A great pudding
Star rating: * * * *

Aldi Christmas pudding Specially Selected Exquisite Vintage Pudding €13.99
This is an excellent pudding that did really well in the taste tests although it was slightly pricier than we would have expected. It is very fruity, with all the big juicy pieces easy to distinguish, and it tastes the booziest of the options put before us this Christmas. There is brandy, sherry and cider. It also looks pleasingly traditional and is wonderfully moist and we’re pretty sure it would be welcome in all Irish houses. It is not as good as the Marker Hotel pudding but it is a bit cheaper and a whole lot easier to find.
Verdict: Very good indeed
Star rating: * * * *

Fallon and Byrne €8.95 for 400g
This small pudding from the high-end Dublin retailer is good, as you might well expect. It is made with rum, brandy whiskey and stout although it doesn’t taste as boozy as it sounds. The ingredients don’t list the percentages of each so we can’t be sure how much alcohol was added to the mix. It is surprisingly light and airy and a whole lot more cakey than we expected. In the taste test we ran, opinion was divided with some people liking the crumbliness and others describing it as too dry. Pricewatch liked it. We did not, however, like all the plastic packaging, which, while festive, seems entirely unnecessary and incredibly wasteful and served only to make it seem like this product was bigger than it was. Price is also an issue as is availability.
Verdict: Lovely but little.
Star rating: * * * *

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