Philip Britten, chef at London's Capital hotel, and his pastry chef, Sarah Crouchman, were our experts. The other testers were: Duncan Fowlie, Hester Bloom, Louisa Rogers, Claire Blezard, Emma Bartlett, Donald Hudd, Andrew Simpson and Deborah Dawkin. Tastes varied, but there was a surprising level of consensus.
We asked six suppliers for "something festive" from their range. Most sent rich fruitcakes, though others made surprising choices. We looked for presentation and substance, for all-natural ingredients and for exclusive recipes to lift the product above the regular, mass-produced confections.
Pure Malt Scotch Whisky Cake, 800g, pounds 12.99 (plus pounds 3.50 p&p)
This fruitcake from the National Trust gift catalogue was the panel's second favourite, judged to be unpretentious, traditional and very moist. "It's just a nice, spicy fruitcake, not too heavy," said Louisa Rogers. Claire Blezard thought you'd easily get away with icing this for Christmas. Philip Britten declared it "good value and full of pure ingredients." But one criticism was universal: "Why does it come in such a naff tin?" Duncan Fowlie wanted to know. "It's the sort of thing my Gran would keep stale digestives in. Surely a nice, green, National Trust tin with a stately home on it would be better?"
***BETTYS AND TAYLORS BY POST
Chocolate and Orange Panettone, 920g, pounds 8.95 (plus pounds 5.90 p&p)
Bettys Tea Rooms in Harrogate has joined forces with Taylors (of tea and coffee fame) to produce a brochure of mail-order edibles so inviting it makes your mouth water. Jaws dropped at this Yorkshire idea of a winter treat: a football-sized panettone done up in raffish cellophane with a tartan ribbon. "This would be a big, exciting Italian statement," mused Philip Britten, "but I think it makes an unfair comparison with the heavier cakes." He approved of the bits of Belgian chocolate, but not the orange flavour. Other panettone fans agreed that "the fantastic aroma is better than the taste" (Louisa Rogers), which some called "synthetic". And the ingredients list yielded eight E numbers. Testers who don't like panettone ("it's really just an oversized bun" - Deborah Dawkin) called this "average".
Chocolate and almond truffle cake, 450g, pounds 16.45 (inc p&p)
Wheat-allergic cake fanciers can rejoice that this rich chocolate cake contains no flour whatsoever. It relies on almonds for its substance. Andrew Simpson agreed with half the panel that the cake "is very enjoyable; it's gooey and rather insubstantial, but well-balanced". The only problem for the cake's supporters was its size. "It's minuscule," protested Hester Bloom, "so it seems very expensive. I could eat at least three slices; then it would be half gone." Philip Britten was not impressed: "This just doesn't work. The additives don't help - for this sort of price you want an exclusive cake that at least seems to be hand-made."
***BAY TREE FOOD COMPANY
Sri Lankan Spice Cake, 550g, pounds 8.30 (inc p&p)
This exotic-sounding fruitcake from Bay Tree (better known for its chutneys and jams) divided the panel. Claire Blezard was among those who loved its flavour, and attributed most of it to molasses with ginger or all- spice. And Philip Britten agreed: "This has a nice, gingery aftertaste," he said, "and I like it better than the other fruitcakes." But Louisa Rogers said she couldn't tell the difference between it "and my Mum's Christmas cake" and others found it "not especially spicy, too sweet and lacking bite" (Donald Hudd).
Ginger cake, 1kg, pounds 13.50 (plus p&p)
This unusual, crunchy ginger cake was seen as a bold move by panellists, who voted it our winner. Emma Bartlett declared: "Stem ginger makes this so much better than the usual soggy ginger cakes." This was deemed moist and of pleasing weight - "Now that's what I call a cake," said Hester Bloom. Although Andrew Simpson didn't like the texture, he agreed that "Her cakes are always very good quality." It's true: the free-range eggs, ginger wine, Kirsch, etc make you feel you're getting value for money and a lovely gift. Only the Capital team demurred; they found the ginger "overpowering", which just goes to show you can't please everyone.
****MRS GILL'S COUNTRY CAKES
Almond Cake, 675g, pounds 8.50 (plus pounds 2.50 p&p)
"This is my idea of heaven," said Louisa Rogers of this very almondy cake from Mrs Gill's, a small-scale Dorset producer which supplies illustrious grocers like Fortnum's with fruitcakes. The cake was unimpressive-looking: a small sponge with a layer of almond paste running through the middle, and just as those who hate ginger disliked Meg Rivers' cake, so those who don't eat marzipan didn't go for this. "It's far too sweet," said the male panellists in unison and Philip Britten discerned "lots of almond essence - almonds aren't this pungent".
Bettys and Taylors, 01423 886 055; Meg Rivers, 01295 688 101; National Trust, 0117 988 4747; Bay Tree Food Company, 01749 831 300; Sarah Meades, 0171 801 9455; Mrs Gill's Country Cakes, 01884 242 744. !
NEXT WEEK: MULLED WINE KITS