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A top chef ranks the best mince pies in London for Christmas

For London chef Fintan Sharp, a good mince pie has pastry that’s golden brown and well-baked on the top, sides and bottom, and it's stuffed with fruity and moist mincemeat

Freshly baked mince pies for Christmas.
Freshly baked mince pies for Christmas. (Edward Howell, Unsplash)

In late November, Nigella Lawson made news when she said Brits could ditch Christmas fruit cake this year and switch to a dessert that people will actually eat. She said she would be making chocolate cake, noting the number of people in her circle who “abominate dried fruit in all its seasonal manifestations.”

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It’s unclear whether Lawson’s bold statement was a side reference to mince pies. But for Bloomberg Pursuits, the start of mince pie season is both cause for celebration and a call to rank them.

This year’s annual taste test featured a dozen mince pies. Options ranged from supermarket varieties, produced by the thousands each day, to stylish ones from notable bakeries that handmake the pastries. Prices varied wildly: The cheapest goes for just 18 pence ($0.23) per mince pie; the priciest is £3.23.

We tapped Fintan Sharp, head chef at St. John Marylebone, to be official taster. His team makes a very good and popular one —  St.  John’s has already sold 10,000 pies this year. The bakery’s pies were also the winner of last year’s Pursuits taste test, as picked by star taster Verena Lochmuller, development chef at Ottolenghi Test Kitchen. Ottolenghi mince pies were part of this year’s competition. (St. John’s were not.)

Armed with a bottle of water and coffee, Sharp tasted his way through a line up of 12 mince pies. For the chef, the ideal mince pie has pastry that’s golden brown and well-baked on the top, sides and bottom, and that encases fruity and moist mincemeat. There should be a discernible, but not too strong, flavor of wintery spices, and not just a powerful kick of, say, clove. The tasting was blind; packaging was removed and each pie was served on a plain white plate. The mince pies varied widely, in everything from size to pastry style to decoration — Ladurée’s unconventional crumb topping stood out among the range of snowflake and star-topped pies.

Despite the differences, Sharp gave a few of them the same ranking. That includes the two joint winners — one from a supermarket shelf; the other much fancier. As it turned out, a higher price did not necessarily equate to a better product; in our tasting, supermarket mince pies took most of the top slots. 

Read on for the pie tasting results, ranked from worst to best. (Rankings also include the specific pie that was tasted, as some outlets make multiple versions of mince pie.)

12. Bettys
Price: £1.50 per pieScore: 4/10

These star-topped mince pies made by the Yorkshire bakery and café had pastry that was underbaked and underwhelming, said Sharp. They were too pale, and sitting in foil cups they didn’t look handmade (even if they were). The pastry failed the mincemeat, which was much better, according to the chef. “It’s sweet but not sugary, with sweetness from fruit,” he said. “There’s more flavors in there.” Classic Mince Pies, box of 12 for £18. 

11. Harvey Nichols 
Price: £2.16 per pie Score: 5/10 

These pricey mince pies scored low in our taste test for the second year in a row. Sharp objected to the too-thick pastry, which made it feel more like a “shortbread biscuit” than a mince pie. The taste was wrong, too, leaning too heavily on sweetness over spice. Traditional Mince Pies, box of 6 for £12.95

8. Ladurée — tie
Price: £2.50 per pieScore: 6/10

Three brands tied for eighth place, including these elegant, crumb-topped mini ones. The petit-four size — they’re about the same diameter as the company’s famed macarons — was a plus for Sharp, who said it would be fun to bring a box of them to a party to pass around after dinner. He also appreciated the crisp, sweet pastry. 

However, he found structural issues. Instead of a moist mincemeat made of raisins, currants, spices and citrus peel bound by a sauce of juice and brandy, there wasn’t much more than dried fruit. That made it a little dry, and difficult to eat with the crumble topping that too easily fell off. “If the filling was different it would be excellent, but there’s nothing holding it together,” said Sharp. Homemade Mince Pies, box of 7 for £17.50 

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8. Bread Ahead — tie
Price: £2.50 per pie Score: 6/10

These large and deep brown mince pies were a bit too sweet for Sharp; both the filling and pastry were sugary. They had spent longer in the oven then most brands, giving them an appealing darker color and more bite — however they weren’t evenly cooked all over. “The sides are underdone,” said Sharp.  The mincemeat could have used more spice too, he added. 

They were also a bit too big for the taster. “For that size, you would take them to a party and only a few people would have them,” said Sharp. “It’s a lot.”  Box of 6 for £12

8. Ottolenghi — tie
Price: £3.23 per mince pieScore: 6/10

Ottolenghi chef Lochmuller put St John’s mince pie at the top of her list. However, Sharp wasn’t as much a fan of Ottolenghi’s offering, a big, dark brown mince-filled pastry with a strong resemblance to a pork pie.

He liked that the rustic pie was so different to others on the market, made with flaky pastry instead of a traditional shortcrust. In fact, the pastry was a hit with Sharp, who described it as “the one.” The mincemeat was richly spiced with “lots of mace and clove,” he said. But that weren’t balanced with enough fruitiness — there was “lots of fruit, but it’s not fruity,” said Sharp. Instead, it tasted a little bitter, almost like it had been overcooked.  Box of 3 for £9.70 

7. Waitrose 
Price: 67 pence per pieScore: 7/10

Despite the brown butter in the recipe, these mince pies were surprisingly pale, yet still held up with a crunchy enough texture, said Sharp. He could taste different types of fruit, including “apple and maybe pear” alongside the traditional currants and raisins. But there wasn’t enough spice. Waitrose No.1 Brown Butter Mince Pies with Cognac, Box of 6 for £4 

5. Gail’s Bakery — tie
Price: £2.50 per pieScore: 7.5/10

The popular bakery chain’s offering had a crisp, thin and dark pastry topped with a “good demerera crust,” said Sharp, making it one of the best exteriors in the test, said Sharp. So far, good. However, Gail’s pies were, he said, “underfilled” with mincemeat, leaving a big gap in the middle. Their mincemeat was well-fruited, yet lacked enough spice.  Box of 6 for £15 

5. Iceland — tie
Price: 21 pence per pieScore: 7.5/10

Tied for fifth place with Gail’s — yet less than a tenth of the price — were the humble mince pies from supermarket chain Iceland. The pastry was, said Sharp, “very short, very crumbly,” and not too sweet, which meant it balanced well with the sweet mincemeat.  Despite the commercial silver foil case, Iceland’s mince pies looked pretty homemade too, he added, with pastry lids topped with a star and a light dusting of sugar. Box of 6 for £1.25 

4. Marks & Spencer 
Price: 58 pence per pieScore: 8/10

These intricately-decorated mince pies come with a snowflake-shaped pastry lid that’s dusted with icing sugar. It tasted good too, with a “nice shortbread casing” filled with “lots of apple and more spices” that, Sharp said, was not too sweet. “That’s nice, it’s a good one,” the chef added, sounding impressed.  M&S Collection Mince Pies, box of 6 for £3.50

3. Sainsbury’s 
Price: 46 pence per pieScore: 8.50/10

Another supermarket offering that scored well was Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference range. These were also nicely decorated with a snowflake on top, which Sharp admired. This one was big on fruits, with plenty of currants and raisins that gave it the “right amount of sweetness and texture.” The only downside was they were “big but underfilled.” The pastry was a decent golden-brown color that wasn’t too thick, either. Taste the Difference Mince Pies, Box of 6 for £2.75

1. Fortnum & Mason — tie
Price:  £2.16 per pieScore: 9/10

Tied for first place was the traditional mince pie from Fortnum & Mason. The pastry was “shortbread-esque,” said Sharp, describing the crisp texture, and sweet, buttery taste. It had been decently baked, judging by the not-too-pale color. The mincemeat was very well-spiced, particularly with clove, making it feel “very Christmassy.” The decoration was minimal, with a plain pastry lid that has just a light dusting of sugar that gives added crunch. If the pastry had been slightly less sweet, these would have been perfect, said Sharp. Christmas Traditional Mince Pies, Box of 6 for £12.95 

1. Tesco — tie
Price: 18 pence per pieScore: 9/10

Also in first place were Tesco’s straightforward mince pies. Decorated with curled edging and a star, the design looked “interesting” and even “rustic, despite the foil case — that’s very good,” said Sharp. They’re baked to a “nice color,” and the pastry is “sweet but not crazy sweet.” The mincemeat was moist with a “nice amount of spices” and a decent fruity punch. The size registered nicely in the mid point between Ladurée’s mini ones and the super-size option from Ottolenghi. 

The overall verdict from Sharp: “Excellent.”

If you’re looking for bang for your buck, Tesco would be the place to go — you can buy a dozen of these winning mince pies for the price of just one from Fortnum & Mason. Merry Mince Pies, Box of 6 for £1.09.

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