The Great Christmas Taste Test: Our panel's verdict on the best festive treats
Every Christmas the big supermarkets go head to head in the fight for our cash in what is the most lucrative time of the year.
And the results of our survey, carried out by the good staff at RAF Cosford Museum, show that you don’t need to spend a fortune to get the best.
It might seem a bit of fun but there is a serious side for supermarkets in the battle of the mince pies. For years most of us stuck to the same supermarket for our shopping, week in, week out. And we went to the same place at Christmas.
But the recession changed that. Instead we went hunting bargains – we still wanted quality but we didn’t want to spend a fortune. And the arrival of the discount chains like Aldi and Lidl cashed in on that, offering tasty food and rock bottom prices.
Everyone has had to up their game in the war to win customers at Christmas. It’s the biggest, most important, shopping season of the year. We spend more on food and drink over the festive period than at any other time, and that is worth a small fortune. Indeed, it can make or break a supermarket chain’s figures for the whole year.
Last year we spent more than £27 billion in supermarkets in the 12 weeks up to early January. Spend in the final two weeks of the festive season alone was £5.9bn.
And this year research indicates families will spend a bit more, around £821.25 on gifts, food and drink.
If a supermarket’s mince pie shows up well in taste tests and pulls in some extra shoppers, that can be worth millions – we spend around £50 million every year on the pastry treats.
And once the store gets us in the doors looking for those mince pies, we are bound to spot a string of other things to buy, whether it is some nice looking German Lebkucken or just a good deal on Brussels sprouts. In the battle for customers, everything helps win a bigger share of those Christmas billions.
So how did some of Britain’s biggest supermarkets perform in the festive fare ratings? We visited Aldi, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Tesco, buying similar items in five categories from each store.
Under the spotlight were mince pies, Christmas cake, festive sandwich, stollen and Christmas pudding.
The shopping was taken to RAF Cosford, where staff had agreed to act as tasters.
Each product was marked out of 10 and the points added to give each product a total score out of 50, and each supermarket a total score out of 250.
At the top, it was a tight contest between two stores at either end of the price spectrum – with Waitrose just ahead at the finishing line. Cost-wise, however, the gap was enormous with Waitrose, at £28.70 for the total basket, more than twice the cost of Aldi’s at £12.95 and, for that matter, Sainsbury’s (£13.45) and the cheapest basket, Tesco (£11.35).
On a pricing note, it was hard to get exact comparisons. The Christmas cakes varied in size – the Sainsbury’s cake, for example, was small in comparison with the others – and the Tesco version was only iced on the top, with these differences reflected in the price.
In the stollen category, Tesco and Sainsbury’s had only 200g loaves available, less than half the size of the other four. There was little difference in the price, however, with a 200g Stollen from Tesco costing £2 compared with a 454g Stollen from Aldi costing £2.29, and £2.50 at Morrisons and Asda, also for the larger loaves. Overall, there were only three points separating Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, with Morrisons finishing close on their tail – maybe not surprising from stores aimed firmly at the middle market – but these four fell well behind Waitrose and Aldi.
Happily, nearly all of them had a winner in the individual categories.
In fact, Asda topped two product items – for Christmas cake and Stollen. Sainsbury’s took the prize for best mince pies, Waitrose for best Christmas pudding, just pipping Tesco, while Aldi and Morrisons tied for tastiest festive sandwich.
Our tasting panel was made up of RAF Cosford Museum general manager Alan Edwards, marketing manager Karen Crick, public events manager Abi Betteridge, visitor experience manager John Sugg and communications officer Michelle Morgan. The team was given each product blind, having no idea which supermarket they came from.
Having given up their lunch hours to take part, they started with the Christmas sandwiches which were combinations of turkey, sausage, bacon, stuffing and cranberry sauce.
Alan thought the Morrison’s version was the most packed, while Abi felt too many stores included mayonnaise in the filling – ‘not with cranberry sauce as well’, she said.
It was noted that the Waitrose sandwich alone sported some greenery – spinach leaves. Let’s be thankful it wasn’t Brussels sprouts.
The Waitrose stollen was the only one that came boxed and tasting of alcohol. It was, in fact, coated in rum syrup. However it was the Asda version that got the overall highest score for its moistness and lightness. Everyone had something to say about the mince pies – from the thickness of the pastry to the quality of the filling, and even the design and decoration.
We like tradition when it comes to the topping of these Yuletide favourites, so a couple of pastry holly leaves was preferred over a lattice design.
Alan loved the Waitrose mini mince pies which were ‘almondy’ and a good size for dinner parties. Michelle, too, liked the size – with so much else on offer at Christmas, a full-size mince pie can just be too much. Karen had a problem with the Aldi pie which collapsed in her hands as she tried to get it out of its tinfoil case, and Abi thought it ‘too liquidy’.
The winner, the Sainsbury’s mince pie, got the thumbs up from Karen for its thick pastry, while Alan thought the pastry was ‘buttery’. And to show how tastes differ, Michelle gave the Asda pie seven points but Alan scored it just one.
There was also a wide variation in the marks for the Christmas cake category. Alan gave the Aldi cake a perfect 10 but Karen thought it needed more icing and marzipan, scoring it a six.
The winner, Asda, was favoured for being nutty as well as fruity, with a good balance of icing and cake, a welcoming taste of brandy and, at the same time, not too heavy.
Alan felt the Waitrose cake, which came second, was nutty and full of festive spices. It was also the only one using traditional royal icing. These two were the most expensive cakes – Asda £9 and Waitrose £12 – so maybe you do have to pay for quality sometimes.
The designs featured Christmas trees, glittery icicles, festive parcel, baubles, knitted-effect holly leaves and snowy peaks. You can’t fault our stores for decorative choice. Let’s be honest, no one was looking forward to the Christmas puddings at this stage in the tasting but our panel put their all into this final category. The Waitrose pud edged into the lead for its distinct citrus flavour and its generous nut content. Abi also felt it was ‘the booziest’.
John thought the Tesco pud was ‘tasty without being overpowering’ while Alan and Karen thought it was the most ‘cake-like’ and would go down even better with a good dollop of brandy butter or cream. Sainsbury’s also scored extra for being ‘citrussy’ but Alan thought the Aldi version was ‘a bit gloopy’.
In the end, it’s down to individual taste. But hopefully our survey will help some people – faced with enough decisions at Christmas – to make up their minds.