We tried the animal-free Christmas sandwiches at nine London chains.
As I write these words, it's still late November and I've already had nine Christmas lunches. That's because I've been out and about road-testing the best seasonal offerings from the big supermarkets and chain cafes.
This year's selection were more diverse and divisive than ever. Some are true Christmas crackers, while others are so tasteless they'll have you reaching for the lateral flow test.
But which one is the best?
Reviews are listed by outlet in alphabetical order.
Caffé Nero vegan festive feast panini
A winter warmer from the Nero. This heated panini reckons to offer a vegan alternative to turkey. According to Andy Shovel, co-founder of THIS vegan food company, who devised the sandwich, "What we've created with Caffè Nero is possibly the lushest of all Christmas sandwiches". The word "possibly" is vital to that sentence.
Your taste buds might run contrary to mine, but I had a really hard time detecting much at all here (and, yes, I had recently had a negative covid test). The spinach (wilted by heating) and stuffing do not offer much except a mushy backdrop. The chief sensation was a shiver of cranberry and port sauce along the flanks of the tongue, like the galvanic kiss of a 9 volt battery. Crucially, the chunks of THIS soya protein, so good in other recipes, do not make a convincing impression of turkey here. The folks at Bernard Matthews will sleep soundly tonight.
Co-op brie and cranberry
The co-op specialises in budget, low-thrills sarnies, and the options are legion. This bounty does not appear to include a vegan Christmas special, but they do have a brie and cranberry offering to suit vegetarians. I bought it. It tasted more like mayo and cranberry, to be honest. The brie, though plentiful, lacked brio, and was about as creamy as Play-Doh. It's not terrible, especially at this price point but, if brie ye seek, then Sainsbury's ye can't beat (see below).
Costa vegan turkee toastie
Nero fiddles while Costa burns (with energy). This festive toastie is along the same lines as their rival’s panini — vegan soya 'meat', cranberry, stuffing and spinach. I’m not sure if it's the choice of bloomer rather than panini, or a slightly different formulation, but this one shines with flavour and texture. No mush. Plenty to savour.
It's not much of a looker, and is one of the more expensive options, but on taste grounds the 'turkee' toastie is this year's best hot sandwich.
Greggs vegan Christmas bake
Back when the world was young, I wrote a letter to Marlow Foods (makers of Quorn) suggesting that they market a 'Quornish Pasty', simply because we all like a bit of half-baked wordplay. They never wrote back. Perhaps they questioned my sanity, after the letter went on to suggest the development of Quorn-on-the-Quob and, for desert, Just One Quornetto. I don't know.
But the Quornish Pasty has finally arrived in spirit if not name as part of the Greggs festive offering. This moderately delicious puff pastry bake contains a Quorn, sage & onion matrix, with vegan bacon pebbledash. Or that's the theory. Mine was all a bit of a mush. If you're old enough to remember boil-in-the-bag chicken supreme, then imagine that wrapped in pastry (without the plastic bag).
It's... OK, especially for the low price. But nothing about it suggests Christmas. Plus, mine was last on the shelf and stone cold. A forlornish pasty, perhaps.
M&S no beef wellie roll
Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle tells us that we can know the position of a particle or its momentum, but never both at the same time. Similarly, Matt's Vegan Uncertainty Principle states that a meat substitute can have a great taste or a convincing texture, but never the two together.
In its masterful Christmas sandwich, M&S disobeys this sacred laws of physics. The pea- and wheat-based protein at the heart of this confection has the mouthfeel of medium-rare beef while also packing in a delicious flavour (it's not exactly bovine, but it is very pleasant). Einstein was, late in life, a vegetarian, and this sandwich would have blown his mind.
The meatiness is aided by a sprinkle of mushrooms, then given crunch with pickled vegetables. The mustard is deftly judged to complete the beef wellington impersonation.
I was so enamoured with this most noble of sandwiches that I took it to see its namesake — the Duke of Wellington above Bank station. The noted meat-eater would spin in his grave if he knew that his good name was now on a vegan sandwich. Perhaps that's why it's called a welly roll.
Price £4 with 5% of sales split between Shelter and Together for Short Lives.
Note, M&S also has a Christmassy brie and cranberry offering, which we didn't try.
Pret vegan Christmas nut roast
I wish — and I say this every year — Pret would do a Christmas sandwich made with whey bread. Just imagine the fun we could have with 'A whey in a Manger' puns. Sadly, they never do. But happily, they are past masters at putting out a superior festive experience.
This year's vegan Christmas nut roast is similar to their previous offerings — which is no bad thing, seeing as it topped our charts back in 2019. If I had to sum it up in seven words, I'd say "butternut squash with random mush and herbs". Fortunately, there's no word count on this article, so I can elaborate a little further.
This is a sandwich to challenge your dental proprioception. Every bite brings a new texture. Nut crunch, squashy squash, crisp rocket and the yielding flesh of cranberry make this an oral pantomime, while the slippery vegan pesto oozed out onto my shoes on two occasions.
Here a hint of sage, there a rogue cranberry and then, oh joy, a well-timed pecan. The blend of sweet and savoury is a masterclass in how to balance a Christmas sandwich. If we have one criticism, it's that the butternut squash inserts were a little undercooked, though this only adds to the textual rollercoaster.
Price £3.75, which includes a 50p donation to Help the Homeless.
Sainsbury's brie and cranberry
No vegan festive sandwich from this supermarket, but a very serviceable B&C (as we're dubbing it). It works because things are kept simple. Nothing more elaborate than a twist of black pepper is brought to bear on this malted bread, brie, spinach and cranberry assemblage, and all are in the right proportion. The downside to this simple approach is that it doesn't feel particularly Christmassy. But then, if we're being honest, can a sandwich ever really 'put you in the festive mood' or 'tickle your taste buds for Christmas'? It's all marketing spiel. Perfectly good sandwich, but nothing you couldn't find in June.
Starbucks' Turkee & Trimmings Toastie
In contrast to our last sandwich, this is a true original. If we had to distill it down to just one flavour it would be — improbably — sauerkraut. The blend of leek, cabbage and sprout with a cranberry tang really does approximate the teutonic favourite. I'm not sure if that's the intention here, but somehow it works and does lend the toastie a seasonal sparkle. The soya-based turkey alternative is somewhat relegated in comparison. It bulks the sandwich out, but adds little in flavour or texture. Very much the Everton of Christmas vegan sandwiches — respectable, occasional touches of flair, but unlikely to win over many neutrals.
Note: Starbucks also has something called 'Blitzen's Blue Cheese and Chutney Toastie'. We didn't try it, but it'd be perfect for vegetarians called Blitzen.
Tesco roasted root veg & chestnut wrap
Making a sandwich look festive is harder than you might think. The surest method, short of filling a bap with tinsel and pine cones, is to inject some beetroot red into the bread dough, and then layer on the spinach. It's a tried and trusted formula, and works well here for Tesco's Plant Chef seasonal offering (which actually avoids the 'C' word anywhere on its packaging).
The roasted root veg — namely carrot and parsnip — really shine through. It's not a taste one would normally entertain in a wrap, but it works well. A sweet undercurrent (under-currant?) is provided by a tag-team of plum and cranberry. Overall, this is a firmly mid-table player. Perfectly chompable and better than your average supermarket sandwich, but never in danger of troubling the trophy cabinet.
The best and worst sandwiches: in summary
It should be noted that all of these were decent, enjoyable sandwiches — even the 1-star offerings were not 'bad' as such, they just didn't pull out the stops.
The clear winner this year is M&S's no wellie roll. Imaginative, perfectly balanced and, above all, full of flavour and texture, we would beg and implore the good Sparksians to put this on their permanent sandwich list. Pret's vegan nut roast is a close second — an offering that would beat most meaty sarnies on taste and satisfaction.
The lower ratings mostly went to the cheaper sandwiches — you very much get what you pay for. The exception is Caffé Nero, which puts too high a price on what we found to be a bland panini.
Londonist bought all its own sandwiches and was not swayed by any press office or other company representative in the compilation of this roundup. Merry Christmas everyone.