How did pastry pies filled with a stewed fruit confection described as ‘meat’ become such an important part of a British Christmas? Even those who claim not to like mince pies often have one at this time of year, or indulge in one of the many flavour variations on offer now, from salted caramel to cranberry and even chocolate chip.
Early mince pies did involve meat, along with the spices, fruits and citrus peel, but sweet pies were common enough by the nineteenth century for Mrs Beeton to include a recipe for one next to a savoury version in her famed Book of Household Management. And we know from Samuel Pepys, writing in the mid-1600s, that while he ate mince pies all year round, they had a special significance at Christmas when his wife waited up until four in the morning while her maids baked mince pies for the household.
Today a proper pie has short, buttery pastry and a rich filling of stewed raisins, apple and candied peel, along with spices and hopefully a dash of booze. The ratio of mincemeat to pastry is down to personal preference. All the pies we’ve selected stand up to being eaten cold and as they come, or heated up and smeared in brandy butter or cream. If you’re going to do the latter, remember the best approach is to ease the lid off after heating and then pile the sauce on. You’re welcome.
We’re pleased to announce a number of vegan and free-from pies are highly recommended this year, though we also tried some of the very cheapest on the market and none, in our opinion, are worth talking about.
£5.25 for six, riverford.co.uk
Best for: Dairy-free
Impressive dairy-free pastry which is both moist and crumbly. You can taste the coconut oil used in place of butter, and it enhances the flavour of the rich fruits and peel. A luxury choice made by the Authentic Bread Company for Riverford.
£2 for six, sainsburys.co.uk
Best for: Budget
A real triumph, and a reminder of the classic glory of a great mince pie: buttery, crumbly pastry paired with dense, boozy mincemeat in which you can make out the individual components, a festive star on top and a shake of shimmering sugar.
£5.75 for four, abelandcole.co.uk
Best for: Luxury
If I were to choose a mince pie on looks alone, it would be these charmers: deep-filled, generously thick pastry with a festive star and a dusting of sugar on top. They measure up in the taste stakes, too, with a rich buttery crust, plump fruits and a generous slosh of cognac.
They are expensive but much bigger than most pies. Handmade for Abel & Cole by the Authentic Bread Company.
£2 for four, booths.co.uk
Best for: Free from diets
Things are really looking up in the cake department for anyone on a free-from diet. These little crackers have a crisp and sweet pastry case and a generous, fruity filling. The pastry is made from vegetable suet, rice flour and ground almonds.
£16 for 12, konditor.co.uk
Best for: Gifting
I can’t decide whether I’d try and pass these sleek and glossy pies off as my own or boast about the fancy bakery they actually hail from. Either way they look most like the mince pies my Mum makes: a dainty shallow pie (a sensible serving given all the other festive indulgences) filled with a dense, almost fudgy, mincemeat. In their printed box they’d make a lovely gift, if you can bear to part with them.
£2.50 for six, waitrose.co.uk
Best for: Finish and design
The quality you’d expect from Waitrose: moreish pastry, classy mincemeat including apricot, glace cherries, almonds and brandy, and a really gorgeous finish with a snowflake design and a shower of shiny sugar.
£2.50 for six, tesco.co.uk
Best for: A twist on the classic
A top-drawer treat for anyone who likes a twist on the classic and a balanced pastry-to-filling ratio. This is a shallow pie with a buttery crumble topping and a layer of plump fruit, finished off with generous dashes of both Courvoisier cognac and port.
£7.50 for six, cartwrightandbutler.co.uk
Best for: The tin
Mini pies are very popular and these little treats pack plenty of flavour. The cranberry and orange flavour is decidedly festive and the smart presentation tin makes these pies a lovely gift, too.
Aldi Specially Selected salted caramel crumble mince pies
£1.79 for six, Aldi
Best for: A bargain
As ever, Aldi comes up trumps on price and £1.79 is a real bargain for such a pretty pie. The mincemeat tastes rich and fudgy rather than strongly salted caramel, and the pastry and topping and both soft and crumbly. Also available in Black Forest flavour with chocolate chips, which is more of a divergence from a traditional pie.
In store only
£2.50 for six, booths.co.uk
Best for: Traditional taste
A medium-sized pie – ideal for snacking while standing up – packed full of a classic dark mincemeat. The pastry is firm but buttery and there’s a cute Christmas tree cut out of the lid. These pies are made for Booths in Cumbria, by Bells of Lazonby.
Prestat Mini Almond mince pies
£7.95 for twelve, Prestat
Best for: Indulgence
A divine treat if you want only a mouthful of mincemeat indulgence, though nothing’s to stop you from eating the whole box yourself.
Prestat is well known for its high quality chocolates and its almond-topped mince pies have a crisp, nutty cloak that lives up to the brand’s reputation.
In store only
£2.50 for four, sainsburys.co.uk
Best for: Vegans
Oggs doesn’t sell itself on being a vegan bakery brand, it wants to focus on flavour. Luckily these mince pies, the first efforts from a young company, measure up.
M&S The Collection mince pies
£2.25 for six, M&S
Best for: Overall
These aren’t just any mince pies…
M&S triumphs again with a pie that is both classic and standout. Great care has been taken over the presentation, with a layered snowflake-shaped top, and the mincemeat has a kick of festive citrus from the clementine juice which marks it out as a cut above the rest.
In store only