Saturday, December 15, 2012


A Taste of Christmas – Battle of the Pies 2012

With only ten days ’til Christmas, thoughts turn inevitably towards two of the most important elements of the season – food, and panic, the two of which will become inextricable in next weekend’s shopping. Today, though, I’m looking at one of the great Christmas shopping comforts, the Christmas dinner-themed pie (with champagne and burger cameos). Like the seasonal sandwich, a pie is rarely more marvellous than on a wet, cold day when you’ve been trampled in the crowds. And while many shops have their Christmas sarnies, today it’s Pieminister versus Square Pie, and there’s only one way to decide: BITE!

Was it really three years ago that I last wrote reviewed the selections of Christmas pies, sandwiches and chocolate boxes? Well, I don’t get out much. This year I won’t be doing the chocolates, in part because I’ve been concentrating my limited time and money on the savouries, and in part because I just prefer the all-year-round chocolate flavours. I have, however, eaten an enormous number of sandwiches (no, I didn’t get back on that diet, why do you ask?), which I hope to find time to write about next week. But, for me, nothing beats a hot pie. This year, Eat no longer seems to be doing them, but to contrast with my old favourite Square Pie this year I’ve bought some of Pieminister’s offering. Square Pie’s shops sell hot pies and mash, and while you can buy uncooked pies to take home, generally they’re for eating on the spot. At least in my experience, Pieminister is the other way round – you can buy them hot in some places, but I’ve only bought them in stores and taken them home to cook.

Square Pie: Christmas in a Pie
“Roast Turkey, Mini Roast Potatoes, Carrots and Stuffing in a lovely gravy.”
Billed on the Square Pie website as “Our Legendary Christmas Pie returns!” I don’t think this is quite true. Because after eating one, I bought an uncooked one, took it home, and then took out of the freezer one last, precious Christmas Pie from last year. The memory didn’t cheat: cooking them side by side, this year’s is a completely different recipe to previous years’…

This is a hearty pie in the Square Pie style – the same moist, firm pastry, and something different to try for each “monthly special”. This one even has a cute heart on top. The best thing about it is the chunks of white and dark turkey meat, which are sizeable and full of flavour. The potato is a decent size, too, though less tasty and more prone to disintegration. There are a few little bits of carrot to give it extra flavour, but I have to admit the gravy wasn’t very exciting, and I couldn’t discern any stuffing in either pie I tried. It’s a good effort, and very warming – exactly what you need when you’re wet and cold – but compared to the old recipe, nowhere near as interesting: a much fuller flavour of stuffing, sausage, dark shreds of cranberry and sprouts all made the pie from the freezer the clear winner of the two (and last year’s sausage, even after a year frozen, worked rather better than the one I reviewed in 2009).

So I’m in a quandary: one of the things I most like about Square Pie is their inventiveness, so I always try the monthly specials as well as popping in for my personal favourite, the Lamb and Rosemary Pie. But there are some of their specials that, once they’ve hit on a really good one, I wish they’d bring back more often – the Lamb Tagine, for example, and of course the Christmas Pie. So while I appreciate the desire to experiment… If you’re reading, Square Pie, how about next year bringing back the old Christmas Pie? It beats this year’s hands down.

Pieminister: Three Kings Pie
“British Turkey, Smoked Bacon & Cranberry Stuffing.”
I’ve tried many of the pie brands you find in big supermarkets to take home and cook; most of them I find disappointing. Pieminister’s are easily the best of them, with a thin, crisp pastry (very different to the Square Pie style, but neither of them thick and stodgy, tasteless or flaky) and great flavours. This year they’ve gone for three different Christmas pies, which some might call overkill but I call a starter, and the obvious challenge to the Christmas in a Pie is their Three Kings Pie. So how did it get on?

It’s a good pie, warming, perhaps slightly more tasty than the Square Pie but slightly less hearty. The turkey’s pretty good, though all I got was white meat in mine (I prefer a mix); there wasn’t a lot of parsnip, but it helped, as did the sausage, which was a nice surprise and much more noticeable than the bacon. It was all in a creamy Béchamel sauce, a nice flavour which didn’t for me quite suit the Christmassy ingredients – I’d have gone for something a bit more deep (though it was crisp and even). Perhaps they wanted a white sauce to suggest snow. Despite being a very different pie to the Christmas in a Pie, I felt that the Three Kings Pie, similarly, was a good pie that could have been a better one if they’d been a bit more adventurous with the taste.

Pieminister: Deer Santa Pie
“British Venison, Dry Cured Bacon, Red Wine & Puy Lentils.”
Have you tried their Deerstalker Pie? You’ll be unsurprised to learn that this seasonal ‘kill a reindeer for Christmas’ pie has no discernible difference. But that’s fine by me, as I rather like it. It’s less a pie for having on its own than as part of a meal with something else to lighten it, I find – a very deep, rich flavour, a very dark colour, and certainly the fullest taste of any of the four pies. You can definitely spot the bacon and, more, the red wine. Unlike the others, though, it does need something lighter to go with it so as not to be slightly overwhelming.

Pieminister: Christingle Pie
“Honey roast parsnip, cheddar cheese & chestnuts.”
I went for the vegetarian one, too, as I thought I’d do all three. And it’s more Béchamel sauce. So I didn’t expect it to do much for me… But, to my surprise, this is the clear winner of the four on sale right now (though, Square Pie, if you should revert… Just saying). Even after another pie in the same sitting, the mixture of parsnips and cheese, sweet and tart, made me salivate more than any of the others. And the sauce suited this pie far better (even the chestnuts added a welcome texture). Proof that I shouldn’t judge a pie by its meatiness, but by its terrible puns.

Gourmet Burger Kitchen: Bah Humburger

I do like a terrible pun. So I took Richard for a Gourmet Burger a couple of weeks ago, and I couldn’t resist. Now, the burger itself doesn’t make much of an effort, I’m afraid: either beef or chicken, with cheese, bacon, mustard mayo, crispy shallots and red pickle. I went for the chicken, fowl seeming more seasonal, but it tasted much like an ordinary burger with too much mustard and a lot of beetroot. Whether they were out of pickle or that the pickle is basically beetroot with a bit of vinegar I don’t really know but, blimey, there was plenty. And a very slight crunch of shallot giving up on the hope of being tasted in the background.

The sides, though, were much better. The sweet potato fries were absolutely delicious, sweet, interesting, and done just right – both soft and crunchy. I’d have those again, if they weren’t only with this burger and unhappily only half as many as with their usual fries (more unhappily, I ordered some of their usually excellent rosemary skinny fries between us, which had been overdone and so were basically toothpicks). And I even quite enjoyed the “Good Elf” Christmas Pudding flavour milkshake.

I have not tried the Burger King Christmas burgers, which this year are being heavily advertised on the basis that, as Christmas is “cheesy”, they’ve bunged a bit of cheese on two ordinary burgers and bunged up the price. I’m not impressed. I’ve been mildly tempted by the new Byron’s but not bought one of theirs this time, either, though at least calling it “Triple Cheesemas” and adding three different types of cheese and an extra burger is trying.

Waitrose: Cuvée Jean Louis Bredon Champagne – Half Price (with extra Hobbit)

I’m not much of a drinker, still less any kind of connoisseur. However, inspired by special events and, obviously, John Steed, we do occasionally get champagne. About two years ago I happened to buy a bottle of Jean Louis Bredon from Waitrose (I think their only UK stockist) and found to my surprise that I actively liked it. No, I won’t describe the taste, as not only do I not have the wine experience to express it but all my wine vocabulary comes from sketch shows that mock it and I’d feel even more of a prat. However, it happens that it’s half price (cut from £29.99 to £14.99 a bottle, and slightly more off for a box of six) until the 18th, so I recommend it.

Waitrose appear to have sold out on their website, but if you have one nearby, test your luck. They still had plenty in at Canary Wharf yesterday evening when we went in on the off-chance after going to see The Hobbit. All I’ll say about that is that it was fantastic, that the designated ‘hot dwarf’ has been let off The Nose, and that Sylvester McCoy is both utterly awesome and gets a lot more screen time and even action than I’d been expecting. Is the courage of wizards in inverse proportion to their seniority (and, indeed, grooming)? I cheered when his name appeared in really big letters at the end.

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Pie porn. Totally.

I desperately wish we could purchase Square Pies in t'North.
[Homer]Mmmm, pie porn.[/Homer]

They should expand!

As do I, in the course of my research.

Let me know next time you're in London and I'll take you. For a pie.
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