STEPHEN DAVY-OSBORNE and chums check out the supermarkets’ best festive offerings

THEY are a Christmas staple sure to get any party into the festive spirit. But serve up a soggy-bottomed mince pie to your guests, and chances are you will be off their Christmas card list next year.

To save you, the busy hosts, the hassle of testing what’s hot and what’s not, the Adver brought together its biggest foodies in the shape of former features writer Marion Sauvebois, cheese columnist Stephen Davy-Osborne, arts and technology reviewer Sean Cameron and former assistant news editor Liz Mackley – who, now living in The North, is an expert in pies and pastry.

We filled our shopping basket with each of the premium pies on offer from Swindon’s 10 national supermarkets and put them together in a blind taste test – in the hope of fooling self-confessed M&S-ophile Sauvebois into loving one of the pies cooked up by one of the budget retailers. It was an arduous task, and here we start with the bottom of the pile.

In eighth place (because we had four pies that came in joint positions after we had calculated our very complicated scoring system) was Asda’s Extra Special luxury all-butter mince pies.

To be fair to them, the box does come with a warning on it that the product contains alcohol. But I’m not sure that really goes far enough – there really ought to be a warning to those due to be operating heavy machinery, bringing aircraft in to land, or those planning on driving in the next five days, as these were exceptionally boozy. We are fully expecting to see poor, unsuspecting drivers in the dock in the days after Christmas, pleading not guilty to drink driving, because all they had was a mince pie, two nights ago, guv’nor.

At £1.85 for six, they were good value for money, but the description on the box of containing a “splash of rich ruby port and French brandy” doesn’t really account for the strong taste of alcohol, unless that splash came from the wash of the HMS Queen Elizabeth as she came into port.

On the plus side, they’re a cheaper option than the supermarket’s own port and French brandy in bottle form, so if you’re looking to get trollied, stick a six-pack of these in your trolley.

In seventh place comes another of “The Big Four” in the form of Sainsbury’s, whose Taste The Difference all butter mince pies infused with brandy sadly seemed to be lacking “the difference”. Thankfully, Sainsbury’s haven’t overdone the brandy, but they also seem to have forgotten to infuse any sort of flavour in their mince, and the texture of the pastry left Marion feeling as though she had just eaten playdough dusted in sugar. Robbed at £2 for six.

In joint sixth place we have the offerings from two of the budget retailers, with both Aldi and Iceland failing to inspire. My fellow taste testers had been suspicious that some of the stronger contenders throughout the evening may be the German retailers’ offerings, as they so often punch far above their weight. Unfortunately, Liz felt that Aldi’s Specially Selected cognac-steeped mince pies looked as though they had been home-made – and not in a good way. Sort of a first attempt. By someone unable to roll out pastry, for example. I’m not sure who they were “specially selected” by, but it suggests the competition was pretty poor at Aldi HQ. At £1.49 for six they’re not bad value, although I was rather suspicious that the box promised the pies were “sprinkled in sweet dusting”. All out of sugar then.

Joining them on the sixth-place podium were Iceland’s luxury mince pies – which, after seeing their Christmas advert praising them as award-winning, I had high hopes for. Actually, that’s a lie. No I didn’t. And if you try to replicate their advert by wrapping up a box of these for your kids, you will never hear the end of it, and are likely to end up with pie on your face. And the walls. And probably next door’s cat too.

Last year these pies allegedly beat Harrod’s pies in a blind taste test carried out by the Daily Mail, which probably goes someway to explaining why the Mail is no longer considered as a trusted source by Wikipedia. This particular pie – which is slightly more expensive at £1.89 for six - received criticism from different tasters around the table for different reasons – Marion found the mincemeat tasteless, while Liz took issue with the pastry. No awards from us for these “award-winning” pies then.

Reaching the half-way point and the upward curve into pies you should consider for your parties we have Lidl.

Bit of a disappointment that it didn’t place higher, as Lidl has built itself a reputation of beating The Big Four by offering premium products for a fraction of the price – and long may it continue. But unfortunately Lidl’s deluxe luxury mince pies - £1.49 for six - drew criticism from Sean for the quality of the star decoration on top, which Liz found difficult to cut in to (we were proper civilised with this taste test, knives and everything - and we even had a spittoon!). But Marion summed up the feeling well, by describing it as a bit of an all-rounder, neither particularly offensive, nor amazing – though she did add she felt the pastry was a bit dough-y. Though at least Lidl list “sugar” as being their sprinkling of choice, unlike Aldi.

In fourth place (and I am still not entirely sure how this happened, because for me it was almost as bad as Asda’s wino pie - perhaps PricewaterhouseCoopers were behind the scoring on this taste test) was Morrisons. Boldly named “The Best Mince Pies”, it will come as no surprise that these were far from the best. The pies have more of a traditional mince pie look about them, and they were significantly deeper than the others, but after we all took a bite into the pie we were left feeling very puzzled. What on earth was that taste? There was something really quite distinctive detracting from the generous helping of mincemeat and – actually – well-cooked pastry. It took us a while to put our finger on it, but once we realised, there was no going back. Beef dripping. They tasted as though they had been baked in beef dripping. Perhaps it was an off batch, or perhaps that’s how it’s done up north. Who knows? But at £1.70 for four, they would be a costly mistake to make. Give your baking trays a scrub Morrisons.

Now in to the medal table, we had joint third place for Marion’s much-coveted M&S pies, which she didn’t recognise, and Tesco’s offering – which everyone was convinced was Lidl’s pie. M&S’s The Collection mince pies are guaranteed to please – they are attractively presented with a festive star design on top, and the pasty was a deliciously appetising golden brown colour. At £2.50 for six they are at the upper end of the budget, but the all-butter shortcrust pastry is deep-filled with plump vine fruits, cranberries, clementine, cherries and brandy, which just goes perfectly with a dollop of clotted cream, and it earned high marks all round from everyone at the table.

On an equal footing was the beautifully decorated Tesco pie, from their Finest range – which, unlike Morrisons, is worthy of such praise. Six will set you back £2, but these deep-filled pies with Courvoisier Cognac do exactly as they promise on the tin. The pastry was so buttery it almost had a taste of shortbread about it, which saw it score highly with Liz, while Marion remarked that in all her years of taste testing she had never had a pie quite like this. High praise indeed.

Slightly stealing both their thunder was the Co-op’s Irresistible all butter luxury mince pies, again coming in at £2 for six. Liz was impressed with the tangy taste of the mincemeat, which is made up of vine fruits, apple, brandy, almonds, cherries and walnuts – which proved to be a winning combination, and we had to stop her finishing it entirely so as not to fill herself up before trying any of the others. Despite coming second, this pie is also sort of a winner in its own right, as it is the best of any of the other traditional mince pies.

Our winner for the evening was a bit more, erm, out there – and not your what you would typically expect from a mince pie. But then again, it does come from Heston Blumenthal for Waitrose so it was never going to be run of the mill. No, Heston’s spiced shortcrust mince pies come with a twist, and I don’t just mean a twist of lemon - they don’t look like your traditional pie, as they have almost a crumble topping. As Liz put it, it’s a very unique take on a mince pie, yet still has all of those traditional Christmas flavours jammed in there, as well as cheeky smack around the lips of lemon curd in the middle. At £2.25 for four they’re at the pricier end of the spectrum, but if you’re looking for a showstopping canape to kick off your party in style (before it all descends into spilled gluhwein and karaoke-ing along to Mariah Carey) then this is most definitely is the pie that’s going to see you invited back for dinner well into the New Year.