This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in February 2016.
Sitting on a petrol pump at a Shell garage in the middle of February, I watch an elderly man in a knee-length raincoat climb out of his silver Vauxhall Astra beside me.
"It's very dangerous to eat here because of all the fumes," he says. His face then breaks out into a barely suppressed grin. "But you can smoke as much as you like."
I have come here, to the petrol station at the top of my road, to sit beside a V-Power Nitro+ petrol pump and munch my way through Ginsters' entire range of tepid meat tubes: the iconic Chicken and Mushroom Slice, the sausage roll, and of course, the Cornish pasty. I want to see if I can prove what I have long suspected: that Britain's biggest savoury pastry snack brand is bad.
Not bad in a so-bad-it's-good way. Not bad in a cheap-meat-and-starch way. I mean bad in the Ginsters-founder-Mark-Samworth-donating-£100,000-to-the-Conservative-Party-the-week-after-the-"pasty-tax"-was-announced way. Whatever your political leanings, it's pretty shonky when big businesses are straight up financially influencing policy.
One hundred thousand pounds is also a lot of money. That's the equivalent of 47,619 Ginsters Chicken and Mushroom Slices. That's more that 75 times my entire year's council tax. And when the present Tory government is destroying Britain's welfare system and breaking up the NHS, if I'm going to eat a cheese-filled golden twist of delicious pastry, I would rather I wasn't funding the Conservative Party as I did so.
Now, I set myself the challenge of eating the entire Ginsters output in the guileless certainty that every station shop in every city in the country would stock it. But when I turn up to the neon-lit aisles of my local garage, there isn't a single pasty to be found. Not a flake of pastry. Oh sure, there are some deep-filled sandwiches and the odd Rustlers burger, but I'm not here to make friends: I'm here to get the job done.
So I nip over the road to the local Tesco (another Tory party donor, I'm afraid) and stock up on a £1 Ginsters Sausage Roll, a £2.10 chicken slice, and a reduced price (lucky me) 89p Cornish pasty. But don't worry, I know as well as you do that a Ginsters should be enjoyed the way God intended: sitting in the freezing forecourt of a suburban petrol station, overlooking a drain, a bin, and a cigarette-pecking pigeon. And so back I went to my stainless steel perch and prepared to chow down.
I kick things off with the sausage roll.
Now, when it comes to flavour, a Ginsters sausage roll is more coy that a Regency courtesan. You have to really concentrate, masticate, and ruminate on that pork pipe to taste anything at all. But when it did finally give up its pastry chastity, it tastes—well, quite a lot like stuffing. By which I mean, it tastes quite a lot like onion. The pastry is denser than a dead dingo's donger but as shards of oiled wheat rain down across my thighs, the overwhelming impression isn't one of grease-rich meaty hedonism. It feels more like biting into one of those fast-setting cement moulds at the dentist.
Next up is the pasty. Good Lord. Staring down the half-chewed corner of a Ginsters pasty is like gazing into the contents of a Hoover bag, emptied into the gaping mouth of a basking shark. That shit is grey. I mean seriously grey.
I cannot, in all honesty, claim to notice any discernible difference in the flavour of the meat itself, even though this was once, tangentially a cow and the sausage roll was—in an abstract way at least—once a pig. But the fillings are differentiated by the enormous chunks of onion found in the pasty. There is enough onion in there to make a grown man cry. Not that it tastes of allium or anything, but I can see it's in there.
As I munch through yet another hundredweight of cold, plaster-like pastry, the lead-tinged fumes of a nearby Renault people carrier lining the back of my throat like a disease, I notice quite how many flags there are on a Ginsters pasty packet. Not just the "British beef " Union Jack in the corner (makes you proud) but also the Kernow flag incorporated into the Ginsters logo.
And so we come to the Chicken and Mushroom Slice. By far the big ticket item on this unlikely, diesel-scented menu, the chicken slice is remarkable in two ways. Firstly, it literally doesn't taste of anything. It is like eating a thought experiment. It is like eating a whisper. It is like eating a sex dream you try to recollect in the shower even as the contents wash away like water through your fingers.
Needless to say, the mushrooms and chicken are entirely interchangeable and the cold pastry like building material. The second, even more arresting characteristic of the chicken and mushroom slice is that halfway through the proceedings, all filling simply disappears. It is empty. I am staring up the orifice of an entirely hollow pastry shell. I feel like a gynaecologist peeping up a loo roll.
It's a particularly apt end to a fantastic meal. But walking back down the hill I, on the off-chance, pop into the Co-op on the corner.
And there it is: the Ginsters cheese and onion pasty. The metropolitan vegetarian option for the health conscious gal about town. I say "health conscious" but even without the meat fibre chunks, this bad boy checks in at a cool 20 grams of saturated fat. Now, this, I imagine, would have been tastier warm. Hot cheese beats cold cheese as squarely as kissing beats flossing.
But, of course, it isn't warm. I am standing against a yellow brick wall, chewing through 514 calories of semi-solid beige food lining, scattering bits of pastry across my face like someone with the delirium tremens.
Four Ginsters in and I feel like someone who just landed abruptly on their crossbar. A sort of deep, existential sadness creeps through my body, coupled with discomfort and a little trickle of shame. I'm not full but neither do I want to eat for the rest of the week. Like American chocolate, Ginsters is almost entirely flavourless, appealing to a range of tastes so broad as to become meaningless. I have also, I imagine, eaten enough preservatives to actually reverse the ageing process.
Cold, covered in pastry, and with what feels like a bowling ball of starch in my abdomen, I still don't know if you pronounce it "Ginsters" or "Jinsters."
But still, at least I had proved my point. In a world full of better, equally affordable food, in a cornershop culture literally stuffed with warm, salty, crispy delights from around the globe, in an age where eating and locomotion are not exclusive, at a time when some of our greatest political actions rely on how we choose to spend our money, when our consciences are as vulnerable as our colons, there is no need to eat Ginsters.
No need whatsoever.