A few weeks ago mysterious queues were seen forming outside Pret A Manger shops. It’s all down to a clique of Christmas groupies who crave the Pret Christmas Lunch sandwich: turkey with all the trimmings between two slices of bread. Rather like the latest iPad, they have to have it first and on the opening day. And it is a half-decent confection, not because of the dull, dry turkey but thanks to its stuffing, crispy onions and cranberry sauce. No wonder those puritan settlers in the US favoured turkey – it really is an austere meat. The trimmings are key and that’s what we’ve been tasting this week, on your behalf.
I came across one of these seasonal sandwich fanciers. She styles herself the Jewish Princess. That’s good enough for me and JP kindly joined our panel, providing input which varied between expertise and fanaticism. She was joined by the Discerning Litigator (DL), the Lebanese Gastronaut (LG), the Gourmet Celeb (GC) and the Gluttonous Pig (GP). They blind-tasted their way through 10 stuffings, 10 pigs in blankets and 10 cranberry sauces.
As ever, there were massive variations in quality but we have found three strong winners to spice up your Christmas meal. What’s that I hear you say? You’re going to handcraft your own stuffing with dried apricots from your Italian estate; you’ll lovingly mince your own sausage meat from organic, non-genetically modified Highgrove pork; and you’ve bought an elite consignment of cranberries personally selected by the Man from Del Monte? So be it, but for the rest of us here’s the cheat’s guide to the trimmings.
We started with stuffing. Why do we eat the stuff in the first place? First, to add a herbal or fruit boost to that dull flesh, and secondly to soak up gravy. So we were looking for products which would be both good partners and properly absorbent (that is, fluffy/crumbly rather than too glutinous).
Overall we were disappointed; unusually, only three received marks over 50 per cent. And the clear advice is to avoid the dry packet mixes that you have to make up with fat and water. They may be cheaper but they are pretty poor. Our bottom three all came dehydrated out of a packet: Copas Traditional Apricot Stuffing with Orange Zest (“strangely stale taste” – DL); Paxo Cranberry & Chestnut (“nut rissole” – JP, “Dettol” – GC); and finally Tesco’s Finest Wild Porcini Mushroom & Roasted Dried Garlic Stuffing Mix. Here the dried garlic was the problem. The ready-made stuffings were able to use garlic purée but dried garlic, as we’ve observed before, can be distressingly overpowering: “an Italian waiter’s armpit” (GP).
Passing our quality threshold were three oven-ready products. In third place was M&S’s Buttered Onion Garden Herb Breadcrumb Stuffing. For avoiders and faddists this is gluten-free and, as if to compensate, the butter comes in at a thumping 22 per cent of the ingredients. Agreeably, it had rosemary rather than sage and benefited from garlic purée: “strong thwack of herb – not parsley or sage, is it rosemary or thyme?” (GC).
Second was Waitrose Mushroom & Garlic Stuffing: “superior whiff of pungent fungus” (GP); “subtle spices” (LG). And our clear winner was Sainsbury’s Apricot & Cranberry Stuffing. It was fluffy, citrusy and inviting: “mellow fruitfulness”(GP); “Moroccan ”(LG); “more a crumble than a stuffing”(DL); “light as air”(GC); “delicious”(JP). We recommend this for your Christmas bird, whether it’s turkey, duck or goose.
Devotees of The Muppet Show will remember the long-running saga “Pigs in Space!” The second round of our tasting presented the captivating but little-known sequel, “Pigs in Blankets!”
Here there was a schism in the panel. The Gluttonous Pig favoured full-length chipolatas wrapped in robust, chewy, heavily smoked bacon. Everyone else liked petite mini-bangers shrouded in an apologetically thin film of salted protein masquerading as bacon. So a minority verdict from GP highlighted the offering from Meat N16: “big, bold, chunky, smoky and best bacon”. Laverstocke Farm’s sausages, however, were made of pork but had a gamey, almost burnt flavour which perplexed us: “dear oh deer” (GP). And it’s only fair to record that Sainsbury’s, who have another triumph to come, did not prosper in this category, with some strangely textured sausages: “peculiar aftertaste” (DL).
Coming in third was Fortnum & Mason with good, streaky bacon embracing a toothsome pork sausage: “tasty but salty” (DL). Second was M&S’s Pork Chipolatas Wrapped in Bacon (that’s a posh way of saying pigs in blankets). They used oak-smoked bacon and their bangers were 78 per cent pork, which was encouraging: “oh yes, as good as the sausages at my Kent summer school all those years ago” (LG); “sweet, good texture, nice aftertaste” (GC); “subtle, good with turkey” (JP).
But first, by a comfortable margin, was Tesco’s British Pork Cocktail Sausages Wrapped in Oak-Smoked Streaky Bacon. The snorkers were 62 per cent pork bulked out by a little bit of rusk and bread. In the UK we quite like that combination, though it wouldn’t go down too well with the Italians who demand ground meat and nothing else. The levels of dried herbs and nutmeg were also well judged: “yummy, wonderful” (LG); “great sausage flavour” (DL); “totally satisfying – an Xmas treat” (GC); “tastes as a great sausage should” (JP); “God bless us, everyone!” (GP).
Cranberry sauce is not really a Brit tradition. We’re arguably more at home with bread sauce (which my great-grandfather referred to, unglamorously, as “bread poultice”). However, fruit sauces have their place. Some like them very sweet but, as a panel, we favoured the ones with a balance of acidity to cut through the festive fat on the plate.
There was one product in the line-up we thought a mistake – Harrods Cranberry and Orange Sauce with Port. Vinegar was listed as an ingredient, presumably employed as a preservative, but it rendered the sauce sour, sharp and disagreeable: “like a salt and vinegar crisp”(GC). Tracklements (a winner of two previous tastings) also have a Cranberry and Orange Sauce with Port which seemed to have the same fault, though it didn’t declare vinegar as an ingredient: “medicinal”(GC).
Three pleased us, though. In reverse order, Fortnum & Mason’s Cranberry Sauce with Port was thought to have a number of possible applications: “quincy fruit flavour – good for meat and cheese”. Then came Daylesford Organic’s Organic Cranberry Sauce. The Gluttonous Pig was typically smug when he correctly spotted a hint of star anise. The added ingredients also included blood orange, stem ginger, cinnamon, allspice, cloves and black pepper. This was an apothecary’s brew which worked: “perfectly acidic”(GP); “delicious – sweet and sour”(JP).
Our top choice came, once again, from Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference range – a thoughtful product which afforded the Gluttonous Pig to be even more pleased with himself. He claimed it had a fragrant, hedgerow quality – like wild blackberries compared to dull, cultivated ones. And, lo and behold, the product turned out to be called Wild Cranberry Sauce with 28 per cent wild fruit in it. It was sweeter than some but a worthy winner: “a bit jam-like” (DL); “traditional and tasty” (JP); “great consistency” (LG); “nicely bucolic” (GC); “wild thing, I think I love you” (GP).
Happy eating this season from the Taste Test. With Sainsbury’s stuffing and cranberry sauce plus Tesco’s pigs in blankets we’re confident you’ll be in safe hands. You might even enjoy that miserable bird, the turkey.
What would you like the Taste Test to tackle in 2013? Comment below or send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Apricot & Cranberry Stuffing, £2.49 (300g), on sale from Dec 5
The pigs in blankets
British Pork Cocktail Sausages Wrapped in Bacon, £3 (314g)
The cranberry sauce
Wild Cranberry Sauce, £7.99 (454g)