Monday, December 21, 2009


A Taste of Christmas (Don’t Worry, It’s With Real Pies)

Christmas Day races terrifyingly towards you, you’ve not finished your Christmas shopping and there’s a blizzard outside. The pavements are slippery to walk on, the trains are knackered and your car’s stuck in a snow drift. You’re wet and cold and miserable as you stagger about trying to fight your way through the queues of fewer shops than you’d thought you’d make in the time, so what could be more seasonal than stuffing your face to make up for it? But there’s another problem: which Christmas sarnies taste of Christmas dinner, and which of cheap cash-in? I’ve tried ’em all. Well, quite a few, anyway. Purely out of selfless dedication to consumer testing, you understand, and not because I’m a gutbucket (and watch out, if you’re picky, for festive spoilers at the bottom for an episode of Blake’s 7 that’s twenty-eight years old tonight).


Christmas Edition Sandwich

You’d expect the swishest end of the supermarkets to do something special. Well… It’s turkey with bacon, stuffing and cranberry sauce, like most of them, and only one element of it’s memorable. There’s quite a bit of turkey, but it’s piled up in incredibly thin slices and none of them taste of very much. The bacon’s all right, there’s quite a sweet bit of cranberry, but the only interesting bit’s the stuffing – pork, sage and onion in a moist and rather tasty paste (you wouldn’t object if it was a sauce). But mainly, the square, processed slices of turkey dominate it, and they’re just not wildly interesting.


Christmas Turkey and all the Trimmings Sandwich

It looks better than the Waitrose; slightly thicker turkey slices (though piled a lot lower) and big half-bits of sausage at a glance. One bite, though, and it’s not one you’d make yourself. The most anonymous turkey, a tiny bit of flavour in the sausage, some very bland malted bread; then there’s sage and onion stuffing in there, and cranberry sauce, but you wouldn’t notice – even the bacon tastes of nothing. This wins the prize for the least interesting taste and the one that screams (or mumbles) ‘mass-produced for the lowest price’. It’s no excuse, though, is it? Some of their sarnies are quite good – stick to the all-day breakfast.


Christmas Triple Sandwich

Because what could be more Christmassy than a selection box? Especially if two of them are a bit cheaper to make than the one you’re actually after? Cheese and Christmas Chutney: the chutney’s quite tasty – bit of a zing – but there’s not a lot of it, though, and the cheese is just cheese. Prawn Cocktail: oh, it’s quite pleasant, I suppose, but doesn’t taste of much (their buy-it-in-a-plastic-pot-and-spread-it-on-yourself sandwich filler’s much better), and it doesn’t sing ‘Christmassy’ to me. But then there’s the Christmas Lunch: turkey slices that resemble actual turkey, a little bit of cranberry, some leaves chucked in, rather uninteresting bacon, but some good stuffingish mayo. It’s the best of the supermarket ones.

Caffé Nero

Turkey and Cranberry Panini

This smells great, and the panini’s got a good taste and texture. But they’ve really skimped on what’s inside it – it’s the only one that blatantly has little wodges of turkey sticking temptingly out of the sides but not actually covering the inside. The cranberry doesn’t do a lot, though the pork, sage and onion stuffing and mayo are tasty in their tiny amounts, but I have to wonder if the other sandwiches would get a similar boost if they were toasted, too. Everything meaty tastes better hot, doesn’t it? Like the Tesco, it’s one to avoid: I think this was twice their price, and it’s nowhere near twice as interesting.

Pret A Manger

The Pret Christmas Lunch Sandwich

Everyone seems to be going for malted bread and sage and onion stuffing, sometimes with pork – come on, even chestnut would seem radical in this company – but for once this all actually tastes of something. Thank goodness that someone can make a sarnie that you remember eating. There are proper bits of turkey, a firm slice of pork, sage and onion stuffing with a good flavour, a splodge of cranberry (I can’t taste the port), leaf spinach (yes, that makes it a health food), but the real zing is the crispy onion mayo, with a bit of crunch to it, too. This is easily the best sarnie of the lot, with both flavour and texture. You don’t realise that all the others are one rather soft flat sensation until you bite into one where the different ingredients have different consistencies.
Their site, however, doesn’t give you what’s in it – just the dietary factoids. Oh dear. How to miss the point.


Turkey and Cranberry Sandwich

Very dull. Actually, it’s a good bit of turkey – the slices have clearly been done by hand rather than on a conveyor belt into processed squares, but there’s just not enough to make it tasty, despite the cranberry, in a very plain sandwich. And stuffing a few rocket leaves in doesn’t make it go. At least the malted bread’s a lot nicer than Tesco’s… Fortunately, they have another go.

Christmas Full Works Sandwich

Now, this one’s a lot better. It’s a white bloomer (unique among these sandwiches in not coming in the regulation triangular packet), softer than any of the others – satisfying to sink your teeth deep into – with proper thick slices of turkey, the ubiquitous sage and onion stuffing, cranberry, mayo, mixed leaf (hey ho), and ham, which wins points for adding something different, even if it’s not that special. This is my runner-up – chunky and comforting, it has the most home-made feel, though the taste and texture lacks the kick of the Pret.

Christmas Pie – Turkey and Stuffing

A hot pie, looking good – an impressive size, round and high enough that even I can’t get it all in my mouth at once – with a generous blob of cranberry on top. It smells great; bite or cut into this pie, and it’s crammed full, too. And I’ll tell you, the turkey’s very tasty, with a touch of bacon, sausage and sauce to make it a lovely little bit of meat. This is sounding like a great pie, isn’t it? So what could possibly go wrong? Only this. That some insane person decided to make it turned inside out, so that succulent morsel’s a tiny nodule of meat surrounded by a vast mass of dry, crumbly sage and onion stuffing that it’s impossible to swallow. Someone must have said, ‘You know how people always do meat with a little bit of stuffing on the inside? Wouldn’t it be really imaginative to do it the other way round, so there’s a tiny bit of meat to set off our amazing stuffing that’s the same flavour as everyone else’s but drier and the size of a castle?’ No. It would make a potentially gorgeous pie into an utter disaster.

I’ve not gone round trying all the veggie options, because there are only so many hours in the day, pounds in the wallet and stone I can put on, but I did give them a second chance and got their Christmas Honey-roast Parsnip and Chestnut Pie as well: it tastes very leeky (baby onions, apparently), quite rich, moist, lots of cheese, tasty parsnips and above all a relief from bloody sage and onion (look, I quite like that combination sparingly, but there are limits). So that one was rather good.

Square Pie

Xmas (yes, I know) Pie

I don’t often write about food, but when I do, I’m quite likely to mention Square Pie. They are fab, always with good pastry – moist and firm, not at all bland or flaky – and always with something interesting in their monthly special pies. Their Christmas special tries the hardest of any of the Christmas-dinner-on-the-move offerings I’ve sampled, boasting “prime turkey, mini roast potatoes, sprouts, chipolatas, stuffing and gravy all wrapped up in a pie”. And though some of theirs have been better (and I still vote for their evergreen Lamb and Rosemary Pie), this works. It’s got a pastry star on the top, sweetly, and mixes both turkey breast and dark meat – a winner for me, as I prefer it. Hot and soaked in gravy sets off the flavour no end, too, and in that mix even the startling wodge of sprout is juicy and rather tasty (Richard still hated it, though). The downside to so many ingredients in a good-sized but not gigantic pie is that what you get in each individual one is something of a lottery; I can’t tell you about the “mini roast potatoes,” as there weren’t any in mine, and the chipolatas don’t really work (everything else is enriched by gravy, but a sausage just goes droopy). Still, on the whole it gives you what you expect to taste and more, and it’s warming and filling. Ideal if you’ve staggered into the shop from a blizzard. Just a shame about the Eat pie that might have beaten it, but went mad.

So, if you’re caught in a storm and fancy a Christmas savoury to pretend you’re at home in front of the fire, look for a Pret A Manger or Square Pie, or failing that an Eat – providing you take a note of which of their recipes work and which are dry and dull – or even ASDA (the Marks and Spencer sandwich was pretty good, too, but I had that before I started making notes, so I’m afraid after a few weeks I can’t remember what distinguished it). And don’t go anywhere near Tesco or Caffé Nero.

Victoria Wood and Blake’s 7

…Meanwhile, we’ve been enjoying the seasonal spectacular that is Ann Widdecombe On Ice (you’re not that fussed?) as part of BBC2’s Victoria Wood Night. I still remember Victoria Wood As Seen On TV being one of the very first things I video-recorded, and then being surprised when I started to go out in Manchester slightly later in my teens and found that every other gayer in the city also adored her. Tonight’s rather fabulous documentary Victoria Wood: Seen On TV – stolen by a Roger Moore anecdote – suggested that my experience was not a completely unique one.

And finally, what could be more festive than to celebrate the anniversary of a Christmassy TV finale from slightly earlier in the ’80s? This was the night that writer Chris Boucher was forever labelled “The man who killed Christmas,” for finishing off the heroic / gittish freedom fighters / terrorists of Blake’s 7 in a hail of fire that killed off the entire cast. And, unlike the infamous Dynasty ‘massacre’ that briefly appeared just as satisfying but which turned out only to have killed the slightly darker-skinned woman in a relationship with a white man and the gay man in a relationship with a man whose sexuality was frequently rewritten – yes, it was an American TV show, how could you tell? – they’re all still dead, a uniquely and brilliantly bleak ending.

(If you want something less bleak, hurrah for the other Gareth Thomas!)

So, as a festive treat, here are three Blake’s 7 trailers from YouTube. The first two are each for that final episode, Blake, both making superb use of CGI from DVD releases (though not necessarily Blake’s 7 ones): this one is in the style of Doctor Who “Next Time…” trailers, complete with Who music, which chooses a great dramatic closing line then an equally effective slightly less dramatic extra ending; while this one is in a self-consciously epic Hollywood style, looking and sounding (thanks to a Batman score) terrific, particularly with Servalan’s added sashay. My favourite Blake’s 7 trailer, though, still remains the official one for the second series on DVD, set to the gorgeous theme from Doctor Who spin-off Shakedown and with a nicely judged sense of irony… Even if I’d have cut it after Travis’ perfect
“Oh, yes. I’m a hero too.”

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