Find the best Christmas crackers, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pies

Sort the crackers from the turkeys with this review of seasonal supermarket trimmings

 

MINCE PIES

Tesco Finest €2.50

Aesthetically these mince pies were very pleasing and we loved the little pasty snowflake sitting on top of each one. The snowy theme was significantly enhanced by the dusting of sugar although we were not entirely convinced these mince pies needed more sugar, as both the pastry and the filling seemed pretty sweet – excessively so, in fact. There wasn’t a whole lot of filing in the pie and the pastry was pretty dense and lacked the light airiness that was to be found elsewhere. These are perfectly pleasant but we would struggle to eat more than one. Tesco makes much of the fact that these are made with Courvoisier Cognac, although they could have just splashed any old brandy into it and it would have been grand. Between now and Christmas these are on special you can get yourself two packets for €4.

Verdict: Thick and sweet.

Star rating: ***

Deluxe Luxury Mince Pies from Lidl €2.49

The Tesco mince pies were topped with a pastry snowflake, while these are topped with a pastry star, but other than that they are very similar in both price and texture – and in Cognac, although Lidl doesn’t specify which brand. If we were forced to choose a favourite among these near identical twins then we would go with the Lidl option because we enjoyed the filling more.

Verdict: Perfectly pleasant.

Star rating: ***

M&S Collection €3.80

These have a slightly less polished look than you might normally expect from M&S and they are all the better for that, as it lends them a real home-made feel. We could easily pass these off as our own if guests popped around over the festive period. The pastry is lovely and the thick, fruity filling is delicious. Without wanting to sound excessively pompous, we had something of a Proustian moment eating these and just a couple of bites sent us spinning back in time to a childhood when the notion that anyone would buy a store-bought mince pie was outlandish.

Verdict: Lovely

Star rating: ****

Specially Selected Exquisite Mince Pies from Aldi €3.99

What is it with frangipane? Who thought ruining a perfectly good mince pie with this sickly sweet topping was a good idea? To be fair to Aldi it is not the only retailer selling mince pies adulterated in this fashion – and we know that some people might love the twist on the traditional – but it isn’t for us. Aldi’s pastry chefs deserve a lot of credit for serving up a light and airy case, and we loved the abundance of nutty fragments in the mincemeat mix. They also looked lovely and, while we are not sure they deserve their Exquisite name and are concerned by the price tag, they are pretty nice.

Verdict: Not really our thing.

Star rating: ***

Avoca €7.95

We may as well address the elephant in the room first: the price. These are, by some margin, the dearest of the mince pies we tried. They are, however, also delicious, and for once we’re happy enough to overlook a high price tag. The filling is rich and fruity and tastes like it was made with care and time. The dusting of icing sugar adds to the whole package as opposed to just making everything overly sweet, and each pie looks so perfect we’d never be able to pass it off as home-made – which is obviously a disappointment.

Verdict: Gorgeous. But dear.

Star rating: ****

Dunnes Stores Simply Better Mince Pies €4.99

The people behind the Dunnes Stores Simply Better range clearly knew what they were doing when they included the two words “all butter” on the packaging and just reading the box had us salivating like Pavlov’s dog. Fortunately we weren’t disappointed when we opened the box and started eating. The pastry is simply amazing, it is delightfully flaky, full of both air and flavour. It almost completely steals the show and the filling can only pale by comparison even though that too is pretty gorgeous.

Verdict: Simply the best

Star rating: *****

STUFFING

Avoca Cranberry and Apricot Stuffing €7.95

Stuffing should not be so good that you’d be happy to eat it straight out of the tub but – and we’re not proud to admit this – that is exactly what we did, at least until the fork was removed from our hands by a concerned third party. It is even better cooked. The ingredients list is perfectly pure and consists of breadcrumbs, parsley, butter, salt, pepper, cranberries and apricots. Almost a third of the stuffing is made up of the last two ingredients which is presumably why it is so expensive.

Verdict: Possibly the nicest stuffing we’ve ever tasted.

Star rating: *****

The DIY option €1

Stuffing must be one of the easiest things in the world to cook. And done right it should be almost free given that the breadcrumbs can come from bread that would otherwise be destined for the bin, and the onions, butter, salt and pepper will almost certainly be lying about in your kitchen in the run-up to Christmas. That means all you will need is sage, which can be yours for €1. Will it taste amazing? No, but it will be fine and that should be sufficient.

Verdict: Great value and fine as a plate filler.

Star rating: ***

Marks & Spencer Pork And Leek Stuffing €4.50

What is funny about this is that the people in M&S think this dinky tray could serve six people. Pricewatch is not ashamed to say we ate a whole tray in a single sitting – and we would have eaten more had it been available. The sausage meat is really good and the leeks add an interesting texture. We loved its greasy saltiness, although we accept that such fare might not be to everyone’s taste. We’re not sure this really has a place on an Irish Christmas plate as it is a little too fancy but it is great in a post-Christmas dinner sandwich.

Verdict: More of a star than a bit player.

Star rating: ****

Connell Bakery Fresh Sage and Onion Stuffing from Lidl €2.19

This is a perfectly fine product that will work on any Christmas dinner plate. It is not, however, anything special and given that it is so easy to recreate this with a handful of cheap ingredients, you’d want to be in a fierce hurry to be bothered with it. When we cooked it we found it to be on the dry side and despite the fact that it looked like there was loads of sage present, the herby flavour was not as pronounced as we would have liked it to be.

Verdict: A bit ordinary

Star rating: ***

CHRISTMAS CRACKERS

Deluxe Luxury Crackers from Lidl €5.99 for six

We’re not sure if a small bottle opener, a nail clipper or the worst padlock that has even found its way on to the shelves of a supermarket anywhere in the world really counts as luxury, even in Lidl-land, and we can’t really imagine anyone of any age anywhere would be delighted to get such a toy at a festive feast, but at least Lidl has got its pricing absolutely right. And while these crackers – like almost all crackers – are rubbish on the inside, on the outside they look quite flash. The light grey writing on the cards was virtually impossible to read – at least for someone of Pricewatch’s advancing years.

Joke: Why did the turkey join the band? Because it had the drumsticks.

Verdict: Very good

Star rating: ****

Tesco Luxury Crackers €14 for six

Tiny chess set? Check. Bottle opener? Check. Spy glass? Check. Weird spiral key ring that no one has ever had a use for? Check. Tesco really has outdone itself with a selection of gifts that are much more rubbish than they look at first glance and it clearly looked up the word “luxury” in the same dictionary as Lidl did. (Mind you, the mini measuring tape key ring was nothing short of brilliant, so hats off to Mr Tesco for picking that one – it earned you one extra star). We loved the friendly little glittery reindeers on the front of each of these crackers – and for that reason alone we were going to award them five stars. Then we saw the price: more than €2 a cracker seems excessive.

Joke: What kind of music likes Christmas? Wrapping paper.

Verdict: Super cute.

Star rating: ****

Aldi Family Crackers €4.99 for 12

What we liked most about the Aldi crackers is they were much more upfront about the uselessness of their contents. It is virtually all plastic and supremely rubbish. No, wait, what we liked most was the look and feel of them: the silver cardboard made them look pricier than they were. Actually that is not what we liked at all. What we really liked was the price. These are as cheap as they should be.

Joke: Where does Father Christmas go to recover from Christmas? An Elf Farm.

Verdict: Pleasingly useless

Star rating: ****

Marks & Spencer

€40 for six crackers

Yes, yes you did read that price right. A colleague tipped us off that Marks & Spencer were selling six crackers for €40. Impossible, we thought. Who in their right mind would spend that much cash on six Christmas crackers even if shiny metal luggage tags and dinky hip flasks are to be found within? Well there must be a market out there otherwise M&S wouldn’t sell them. That such a market exists suggests that there are people out there who have clearly lost the run of themselves.

Joke: At €8 a cracker we’d want Dara Ó Briain to tell it in person.

Verdict: Fancy but ridiculously priced.

Star rating: **

CRANBERRY SAUCE

Avoca €4.95

This sauce have a very thick, jammy texture that makes it easy to scoop on to a fork with your turkey. It also has a wonderful bitterness and a pleasingly pure ingredient list, which tells us that 80 per cent of the mix is cranberries with a further 6 per cent given over to port. At just under €5 it is not dear and – unlike many jars of cranberry sauce, which are half eaten and then binned in June – this will almost certainly be finished.

Verdict: Stellar

Star rating: ****

Marks & Spencer €4.50

This has a much gloopier texture than the Avoca option, which means it will be less easy to control on the fork but it rivals it in terms of taste and purity of ingredients. We like the fact that all the berries come whole and have a wonderful tartness. You could make your own cranberry sauce from scratch, but with options such as this on the table, we can’t see why you’d be bothered.

Verdict: Stellar

Star rating: ****

Tesco Wild Cranberry Sauce €2.49

This starts out incredibly bitter but ends up surprisingly sweet. A small dollop on a plate will go a long way. Any more than a small dollop might be overkill. We liked the coarse texture of the sauce and the fact there were discernible bits of cranberry skin, and while this is a long way from the Avoca and M&S options in terms of freshness, the ingredient list is equally pure. The price is not too bad either.

Verdict: Pretty good.

Star rating: ***

Aldi Specially Selected €1.49

We are always reluctant to say the different retailers get their stock from the same source but what we can say in this instance is that this cranberry sauce and the cranberry sauce we found selling in Tesco were identical in every respect bar one. The ingredient list was the same, the volume was the same, the texture was the same and flavours were the same. The only difference, then, is the price. And at €1.49 this is substantially cheaper than its nearest rival and has to represent excellent value for money.

Verdict: Excellent.

Star rating: *****

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