Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The best mince pies in Britain (maybe)

I worked at a grocery store when I was 16 years old. At that time, my primary responsibility was gathering shopping trolleys and occasionally performing such mundane and pointless tasks as polishing the chrome.

That sounds perhaps sexual, but, in fact, it is something I had to do once: polish small strips of chrome on the open-topped freezers filled with bratwurst and chicken and various other summer barbecue staples. These strips of chrome were roughly 3/4 inch thick and located at ankle height. I am willing to bet that the number of people who had ever actually noticed those strips of chrome could have easily fit in a 1986 Plymouth Voyager (a).

So, for me, "polishing the chrome," means: "a task that is beyond pointless." Whether literally or metaphorically, I rarely did anything but polish the chrome at that job. Other things I did were: "steal Sport Shakes (b)" and "flirt with girls." I believe the latter is what had led to my being inside the grocery store, rather than out in the boiling hot car park where I belonged, when a woman came up and asked if I could help her find mincemeat.

"I sure can," I said, and happily led her straight to the ground beef.
"No," she said. "Mincemeat. It would probably come in a jar."
"Meat in a jar?"
"It's not really meat. That's just what they call it. It's an English thing."
"I've never heard of that. The English are stupid."

In those days I was notorious for my inability to disconnect the things I thought from the things I said. The woman went off to find mincemeat by herself. I have no idea whether she ever found it, nor whether it was even sold at Cub Foods.

For those of you playing along at home, mincemeat -- also known simply as "mince" -- is, in fact, a pie filling. It consists of various fruits, Christmas spices and usually booze, and is packed into tiny pie shells to create the British holiday treat that is The Mince Pie.

I don't understand why we don't have mince pies in the United States. Perhaps branding is to blame, because little pies are the sort of thing that Americans can definitely get behind. The name comes from the fact that there once was meat in a mincemeat pie. But that was in the days of Henry VIII; they ate all kinds of awful things back then. For example: medlar, the fruit that looks like an anus and doesn't taste right until overripe.

It's unfortunate that Yanqui Christmases are mince pie-less, because them things is delicioso, yo! They are one of my favourite aspects of Christmastime in Britain. Mince pies are sold by the box in almost every grocery store and corner shop in the country. Since moving here more than four Christmases ago, I have long wondered which mince pie was the best. This year I have put some effort into finding out.

Over the past several weeks I have been taste-testing mince pies from five major retailers. For the sake of fairness, I decided it was important to eat an entire box of pies over a period of several days. That way my judgment was not dependent upon that day's particular mood. The pies tested were always the best quality offered at that particular retailer (e.g., Tesco's Finest). Each taste test consisted of a single pie consumed with a mug of tea. Here are the results of my efforts, ranked in order of best to worst.

1) Waitrose: You'd kind of expect that to be the case, wouldn't you? Waitrose's pastry was buttery and rich, and particularly addictive. I'd be happy to have just the pie crust on its own. The filling had a lovely orangey flavour that I'm not sure everyone would be crazy about but which I loved. The only drawback to these pies is that they are so rich and delicious you really can't eat more than one in a sitting.

2) Marks & Spencer: Close in quality to Waitrose but tasting slightly more like something that is store-bought.

3) Tesco: A standard mince pie that neither thrills nor disappoints. It is the Peugeot of mince pies.

4) The Co-Operative: Below par crust and not enough filling. The Co-Operative labelled these mince pies as "truly irresistible." Clearly they failed to finish the statement. It should read: "Truly irresistible, if you've not eaten in roughly a week."

5) Sainsbury's: Surprisingly disappointing. The crust had a certain plastic quality and the filling tastes like someone's grandmother. I felt let down. This mince pie was only slightly more enjoyable than the Battle of Antietam.


(a) The automobile choice of Minneapolis' Somali community.
(b) A whole stick of butter in every can!


Robert Humphries said...

I, too, have polished the chrome.

Anonymous said...

Aldis are nice too.......


Anonymous said...

I've been 4 years in UK as well, from a country without mince pies... and I still don't appreciate them much :-(
but I'm going to give a go to the Waitrose's ones and let you know.



Mariah! said...

I’m sad. I have such fond memories of Sainsbury’s. It’s all glitter and rainbows in my mind – with employees doing extravagant song and dance numbers involving trolleys and free Crunchie Bars for all; whereas Lily Allen tells me Tesco is where you go if you want to be mugged. Are you absolutely sure your findings are scientific and accurate? Also, Cub carries 3 brands of mincemeat in the baking aisle next to the pie filling and marzipan. You’d think I’d know that from my part-time job/hobby, but actually it’s because I have an Irish mother-in-law living state-side who frequently needs such things.

Anonymous said...

You know what? Mincemeat in a jar is manufactured and sold in the U.S., and it's still made with beef in it too, which must seem incredibly old-fashioned to people in the U.K.
Can't remember the brand off the top of my head, but it's a regional thing. Maybe southern.