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The Taste Test: Falafel

I absolutely love falafel. Also hummus. Falafel and hummus together, ideally. Chickpea on chickpea. I don’t know why I find them so comforting, but I genuinely adore them. Of course, you can make falafel yourself. And I sometimes do. But, to be perfectly honest, it is a bit of a hassle. If you want them to be really excellent you have to deep fry them. I don’t have a deep fryer (thank god, really, because I’d never stop using it if I did), so I have to faff about with a pan and hot oil and even though it’s perfectly doable, I am lazy enough that I don’t do it too often.

So, mostly, I buy falafel. And that’s perfectly okay. But I’ve never thought too much about what kind of falafel I buy, preferring to simply chuck the cheapest option directly into my open mouth. It’s silly, though, because good, proper falafel are a wonderful thing, and worth getting right. Yes, the best are fresh from the fryer, hot and crisp and perfectly seasoned. But since we don’t live in a perfect world, most often it’s the supermarket version that will simply have to do.

As before, I feel I need a rambling disclaimer: obviously, I am doing this in my kitchen and not in a lab and I am not a scientist. These are the opinions of one person – that said, one person who has been trained to taste for quality. Also, the products used in this series are just examples – obviously each supermarket has, say, eight or nine different types of falafel or whatever the product may be, and I’m not going to try every single one because what am I, made of money?

Finally, I should highlight that I tasted all the products blind, and at the time of tasting and making my notes I didn’t know which product came from which shop. I sat in one room while my glamorous assistant (er, my husband), prepared the samples in another. Any notes added regarding packaging and so on were only done after blind tasting, when I learned which who had made product A, B, C, D, or E.

The Blind Taste Test: Falafel

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Falafel
per 100g
£
kcal
fat
carb
fibre
protein
salt
Waitrose
1.56
256
12.9
23.9
7.7
7.3
0.91
Aldi
0.64
245
12
26
5.7
6.3
1.4
Tesco
1.64
208
9
20.3
7.2
7.6
0.9
Sainsbury’s
1.00
281
15.5
25.2
6.4
6.8
1.25
Cauldron
0.63
268
14
25
6.0
7.5
1.5

A – Tesco – 4/10

  • Holds itself together well, doesn’t fall apart when you bite into it. A bit too dry when eating. A little bland – some spiciness of the finish but not enough salt. Not offensive but not interesting.

B – Aldi – 6/10

  • More texture than A. Obvious chunks of chickpea, more flavour. Still a little bland. Tastes of chickpea but not a lot else. Could do with more spice and salt, but basically fine.

C – Cauldron- 7/10

  • Obviously visually different from all the others. Much lighter and softer, not at all dry. Very smooth. Flavour of chickpeas, and a bit of a herby taste too. A nice spiciness on the aftertaste. Could do with a little more salt.

D – Waitrose – 8/10

  • Really different from the others. Chunks of onion and chickpea are obvious. Sweeter than the others, in a good way, but more spiciness too. Tastes of real ingredients, not a bland paste.

E – Sainsbury’s – 4/10

  • Not particularly fresh or natural tasting, but not awful either. Fine, but very nondescript.

Conclusions

Two front-runners here. The Waitrose falafel were  the tastiest and the clear winner. They were actually sweet potato falafel – I couldn’t find a sample of plain own-brand falafel in the shop – but what really made them stand out from the pack was the fact that they tasted like they had been made from real, natural ingredients that you could identify on eating.

The Cauldron falafel are probably a brand leader and I really liked those too, although they were very different from the other samples, being softer and lighter. It seems falafel are such simple little things, and comparatively fresh, so you can’t really get away with just using cheap ingredients and not bothering to season them properly.

All of them would be fine in a wrap or doused in hummus, but I was really surprised and interested at the vast gulf between the basic and the high-end offerings here – I will definitely buy Cauldron in the future, whereas before I would not have bothered with a brand, thinking that supermarket own would be just as good.

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Review: The Jericho Tavern

The Jericho Tavern has a lot of history behind it. It’s a bit of an Oxford institution, in no small part due to its dedicated venue space where a lot of celebrated bands have played. While other pubs and restaurants around it have come and gone, The Jericho has remained. My husband, as a musician, has both played and attended several gigs there. They also run lots of other events: I once went to a yoga class that ran upstairs (#pubyoga is the only way you might get me to exercise). The pub has a lot of memories attached to it, both for us and for lots of other people in Oxford. So when we heard it had been given a bit of a face lift, and had a shiny new menu, we were only too happy to go along and check it out.

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The main pub downstairs is huge, but manages to feel cosy rather than cavernous thanks to its deep blue walls, plush comfy benches, hidden away corners, and the friendly welcome we received on arrival. The dining area boasts huge windows with pretty stained glass that let in a lot of light and make The Jericho the perfect spot for watching the world come and go on Walton Street.

The menus are all available online, if you fancy a gander, but there’s a sandwich menu, a main menu, and a Sunday menu. Food is ordered at the bar. We were ordering off the main menu, which was full of tempting choices. The Sharers section looked great, particularly the Burger Board with its selection of twelve little burgers, but even we’d struggle to manage a dozen burgers between two people so sadly it was not to be this time. The snacks were also tempting, particularly the Pulled Pork Pie and the handmade Scotch Egg, but we were there for proper lunch. And proper lunch we got.

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I went for the 21 Day Aged Sirloin Steak, Mini Yorkshire Puddings Filled with Caramelised Onions, Triple Cooked Chips and Horseradish Butter. You know, a simple, light, healthy weekday lunch. Yup. James had the Chicken, Portobello Mushroom, Leek & Pancetta Pie with Roasted Roots and Triple Cooked Chips.

Unusually, James definitely won on ordering here. I sometimes choose steak as a good litmus test for a new menu – something simple that’s easy to do well but is often done badly – but I would definitely have plumped for James’s lunch if I was choosing between the two. My steak tasted great and had a lot of flavour, which I enjoyed, but it was a little tough. The menu advertised miniature Yorkshires filled with caramelised onions, but as you can see from the picture, I got one Yorkshire and a pot of caramelised onions on the side. Nothing wrong with that, but if you’re going to specify mini Yorkshires you might as well serve them. The horseradish butter was great, though, and the chips were absolutely excellent. Perfectly crispy outside, fluffy inside, well-seasoned, and addictive. Exactly as chips should be.

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James’s pie, while deceptively simple in appearance. was very tasty. Great pastry, buttery and full of flavour with a lovely flake and crunch, and a satisfyingly rich and meaty filling. His chips were as great as the ones that came with the steak, and the roasted root vegetables, while not especially exciting, tasted lovely.

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By this point, James was ‘too full for dessert’. This is not a state I really understand, because I am never too full for dessert, so I ordered the Sticky Toffee Pudding and got two spoons, assuming I could persuade him to have a tiny nibble. This didn’t turn out to be an issue, because the pudding was delicious. Rich, warming, full of texture and flavour, and gloriously sweet and sticky. Definitely a winner.
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I also should point out that we attended the relaunch party for the Jericho Tavern a couple of weeks before this lunch, and ate that night too. I had the chicken katsu burger and James had the sausage and mash. No pictures, I’m afraid, but both were really very good indeed and we’d happily go back and eat them again.

The service we received at the pub was excellent. The staff were friendly and helpful, and all of our food arrived in good time despite the fact that the pub was packed with Christmas party bookings. Generally, it was a very pleasant experience and we had a lovely lunch.

The only little thing I would note is that it was very chilly inside. I am always cold and it was literally snowing on the day we visited, so I was prepared to dismiss this as being just my problem, but then I heard someone on the table next to us say it was freezing. My husband asked one of the staff members if he could turn on the radiator, which was stone cold and clearly off, but, although the guy was very friendly and helpful, he couldn’t work out how to get it going. This is only a minor complaint though, and I’m sure it’s something fixable.

Overall, the refurbishment of The Jericho looks to have been a success. They’ve smartened up, but kept the heart and essence of the pub alive, making it a fresher version of the place people have loved for years. The new modern menu is full of interesting options, and it was good to see choices suitable for vegetarians and vegans too. The food we’ve tried there so far has all been tasty and satisfying, ranging from good to great. If you’re in the Jericho area and looking for a hearty and delicious pub meal, then The Jericho Tavern is the place to go.

Disclaimer: The Jericho kindly provided us with a complimentary meal in exchange for a review, but all opinions are, as ever, my own.
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The Taste Test: Butter

Butter was actually another suggestion for a Taste Test post from a friend. It’s great: these days people just suggest products to me so I no longer have to come up with all the ideas myself. Crowd-sourced creativity. Anyway, butter is an excellent idea for one of these posts, because it’s the sort of thing I tend to buy without thinking and so it’s always good to explore what other options are out there, and challenge my unquestioned assumption that my preferred butter is a solid choice.

It should be noted that I go through a fairly serious amount of butter. There is a butter shelf in the door of my fridge which is, at all times, filled with a frankly shocking number of packs of butter. This is because I bake most days, and therefore have the basics in stock at all times (you should see the ‘baking cupboard’). So I have a vested interest in this.

Of course, when you’re baking with butter, you won’t massively notice the difference between different brands (although you definitely notice a difference between butter and fake butter). But when the quality of your butter really matters is when you are eating it on toast. I bake a lot of bread, and there are few things more delicious than a generous hunk of bread, warm from the oven, spread liberally with soft salted butter.

All these butter samples are salted, by the way. Partly for consistency, and partly because I never buy unsalted butter. And I ate it with bread, because even I can’t eat straight butter.

As before, I feel I need a rambling disclaimer: obviously, I am doing this in my kitchen and not in a lab and I am not a scientist. These are the opinions of one person – that said, one person who has been trained to taste for quality. Also, the products used in this series are just examples – obviously each supermarket has, say, eight or nine different types of butter or whatever the product may be, and I’m not going to try every single one because what am I, made of money?

Finally, I should highlight that I tasted all the products blind, and at the time of tasting and making my notes I didn’t know which product came from which shop. I sat in one room while my glamorous assistant (er, my husband), prepared the samples in another. Any notes added regarding packaging and so on were only done after blind tasting, when I learned which who had made product A, B, C, D, or E.

The Blind Taste Test: Butter

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Butter
100g
£
kcal
fat
carb
fibre
protein
salt
Waitrose
0.80
725
80
0.5
0
0.7
3.0
Trewithen
0.61
744
82
0.6
0
0.6
1.8
Isigny
0.80
725
80
0.5
0
0.7
2
Aldi Everyday
0.54
737
81
0.8
0
0.6
1.7
Lurpak
0.80
739
82
0.7
0
0.6
1.2
Tesco
0.64
745
82.2
0.6
0
0.6
1.5

A – Isigny Ste-Mere – 6/10

  • Quite noticably salty – a bit too salty, even for me, and I have a salt-tooth. A nice creaminess to it, but also seems a bit oily. Not bad, but not particularly interesting.

B – Aldi – Everyday Essentials – 5/10

  • Lighter in texture than A, and much less salty – kind of disappears in your mouth. A little saltiness at the end but no real flavour.

C – Waitrose – Brittany butter with sea salt crystals – 8/10

  • One of the thicker and more lightly coloured butters. Pleasantly creamy. A nice level of salt for my tastes. Has a noticeable ‘real butter’ taste.

D – Trewithen Dairy Cornish Butter – 7/10

  • Enjoyable to eat – a nice flavour to it and a good level of saltiness. My second favourite choice.

E – Tesco – 5/10

  • Very light, another butter that disappears in your mouth. A little salt on the finish but not much on the actual eating. Not quite enough flavour for me.

F – Lurpak – 5/10

  • A little oily, and a little bland. Not salty enough for me, although bear in mind I have a high salt tolerance.

Conclusions

First conclusion: bread and butter is tasty. I should stop with all the fancy stuff and eat more bread and butter.

None of these were terrible. If I was just eating nice bread with nice butter then, I’m afraid, I’d definitely go for the Waitrose option here, which is on the expensive end (although tied for most expensive with two others, including Lurpak, who are a big brand and which I found disappointingly bland). That said, my second favourite was Trewithen, and that was the second cheapest option.

If you’re buying butter to eat on bread, then go for the nice stuff. If you’re just cooking with it, it doesn’t really matter, because they are all fine. I still wouldn’t buy fake butter though.

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Review: Arbequina

Full disclosure: this is actually going to be less of a review, and more of a love letter. We went to Arbequina over the weekend to celebrate the restaurant’s one year anniversary, and I realised it was ridiculous that I’d never written about it on the blog before. Granted, they have absolutely no need of another positive review. With people singing the place’s praises from the Oxford Mail to the Guardian, it’s not been short of attention. Every time I’ve been there, the compact room has been full of lively customers. But I’m going to write about it anyway, because I love it.

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We went on a squally evening in October, when Storm Brian was still at play, and the vicious wind was whipping cold rain at us as we trudged up Cowley Road. Arbequina was a little haven of fluttering candles and the enticing smells of good food to come. We were greeted warmly by the staff – as we always are, because they’re lovely there – and settled down to the menu, with which I am intimately familiar. Eased along our way by exemplary Rebujitos and Negronis, we settled in for the kind of meal that you don’t have to worry about because you know everything will be done well.

Crisp toasts topped with warming, punchy Nduja, with the sweetness of honey and the earth of thyme. A tortilla just as a tortilla should be, with its bronzed exterior and its oozing, collapsing interior, with that depth of flavour only achieved when proper time and attention is paid. A pile of gloriously charred cauliflower, sharp with lemon and jewelled with pomegranate seeds, atop ethereally smooth and rich puree. Chicken, crisp on the outside and meltingly tender on the inside. A salad that was so much more than a token or an afterthought, with crispy chickpeas as addictive and delicious as anything I’ve eaten, piled high with bright fresh vegetables, creamy yoghurt, the finishing flavour of Nigella seeds. Meatballs, plump and juicy, finished with a crisp hazelnut crumb.

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And the desserts: the rich, clean flan with the burnish of perfect caramel; the exquisite scoop of chocolate mousse; the final satisfaction of the chocolate salami. All washed down with an excellent Moscatel and a perfect espresso.

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..

And, joy of joys, they take bookings. You can call them! You can email them! Even chat to them on Twitter! I long ago gave up trying to get a table at Oli’s Thai (it’s not literally impossible, but it’s very difficult, and they make it very difficult in a way that annoys me because it seems unnecessary, so I stopped trying). But you can reserve a table easily at Arbequina, and if you walk in without a booking they’ll usually find you a corner anyway. or you can sit at the bar, which is actually a delight because you get to watch the chefs working their magic.

I have recommended Arbequina to many people over the last year, and no one has been less than delighted at what they found when they visited. Yes, it’s true it’s not entirely unique, and yes, there are restaurants like this in London. But that doesn’t make Arbequina any less than wonderful, and there’s certainly nowhere else like it in Oxford. I hope to be celebrating anniversaries with them for years to come.

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The Taste Test: Greek Yoghurt

I’m on a bit of a dairy kick with these taste test posts, it would seem. Last week, feta. This week, Greek yoghurt. We consume a ridiculous amount of Greek yoghurt around these parts, considering that we’re only a two person (and one cat) household. I use it in breakfast dishes, in smoothies, to make dressings, as a marinade, as a quick snack… Greek yoghurt is incredibly versatile, tasty, and even good for you, apparently. Full of protein.

There’s a significant difference between Greek yoghurt and plain, or natural, yoghurt. Greek yoghurt is creamier and thicker (and higher in fat) than plain yoghurt. I’m not going to get into the whole argument of whether or not some fats are good for you here (I don’t have the answers, I’m not a nutritionist, and it’s been talked to death). Personally, though, I don’t buy anything ‘low fat’. Usually low fat products just contain more sugar and/or water than their full fat cousins, and don’t taste as good.

The distinctive texture of Greek yoghurt comes from having had the whey strained off it, to create a thick, creamy product. Do not confuse Greek yoghurt with Greek style yoghurt. Generally, Greek yoghurt has undergone this straining process, while Greek style yoghurt hasn’t. The latter often contains thickeners and preservatives, and will have a more watery texture. And won’t be as tasty.

As before, I feel I need a rambling disclaimer: obviously, I am doing this in my kitchen and not in a lab and I am not a scientist. These are the opinions of one person – that said, one person who has been trained to taste for quality. Also, the products used in this series are just examples – obviously each supermarket has, say, eight or nine different types of yoghurt or whatever the product may be, and I’m not going to try every single one because what am I, made of money?

Finally, I should highlight that I tasted all the products blind, and at the time of tasting and making my notes I didn’t know which product came from which shop. I sat in one room while my glamorous assistant (er, my husband), prepared the samples in another. Any notes added regarding packaging and so on were only done after blind tasting, when I learned which supermarket had made A, B, C, D, or E.

The Blind Taste Test: Greek Yoghurt

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Greek Yoghurt
per 100g
£
kcal
fat
carb
fibre
protein
salt
Tesco
0.35
130
9.9
3.8
0
6.5
0.2
Sainsbury’s
0.40
137
10.7
4.1
0.5
6.0
0.11
Waitrose
0.38
131
10.2
3.7
0.3
5.9
0.15
Total
0.55
96
5.0
3.8
9.0
0.1
Brooklea – Aldi
0.28
132
10
3.7
0.5
6.4
0.2

A – Waitrose –  6/10

  • One of the thickest yoghurts – held a defined shape on the spoon. Quite smooth – a creamy texture but, oddly, didn’t actually taste particularly creamy. A fairly sharp and acidic taste – almost drying in the mouth.

B – Tesco – 7/10

  • Much softer than A – moved around the spoon a lot more, but still quite thick. A lighter, softer texture. Very smooth to taste, and not too acidic. Well balanced.

C – Total – 7/10

  • Doesn’t look as smooth on the spoon as some of the other samples, and a bit of liquid separation from the solid of the yoghurt that you didn’t see on all products. Means what’s left was very thick. Creamy, medium acidity. Good but not amazing.

D – Sainsbury’s – 8/10

  • Another firm yoghurt, holding its shape. A good smooth texture. Fairly acidic taste, but nicely creamy too. Well balanced.

E – Aldi – Brooklea – 7/10

  • Holding shape, not separating on the spoon. Creamy, smooth texture. Very thick.

Conclusion

The main thing to note is that none of these were bad, and I’d eat them all again. Looking at this, unless I just got lucky, anything labelled Greek yoghurt has to be of a certain standard, and so all the products I tried were pretty tasty.

It’s interesting to note that, gram for gram, there are far fewer calories in the Total yoghurt than in all the other samples. Total was the most expensive, and tasted fine, but wasn’t the most delicious. That said, if you’re watching your calorie intake then it’s obviously the way to go. The other products are all so similar in calories, and Total is the only option significantly lower on the scale, so there must be some variation in their production methods.

My favourite was the Sainsbury’s own brand, which was towards the more expensive end of things, but would be lovely for something where you’re actually going to taste the yoghurt – with a dessert, say, or plain with berries or granola. However, if you’re using the yoghurt for a dressing or marinade or something, any of these would be fine, so you may as well go for the one that’s cheapest or most easily available to you.

Next week, chocolate hazelnut spread. Yes, I mean Nutella. Yes, it is a happy time.

*Prices correct at time of writing.

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The Taste Test: Feta Cheese

After last week’s taste test post, I’m going back to human food. For now, at least. If anyone has a puppy they want to lend me to help out with a dog food taste test, just let me know. Today though, feta cheese. One of the very first taste test blogs I did was on cheddar cheese, but really, why stop there? Now I think about it, there are dozens – hundreds, even – of cheese related taste tests I could do. Halloumi? Parmesan? Stilton? If you are particularly curious about any specific cheeses, then let me know in the comments and I will make it happen.

I also keep meaning to get round to posting a recipe for a baked vegan feta cheese substitute. I had some at a class I was helping with a couple of months ago and, my god, it was a revelation. I’ve absolutely no need (in dietary terms) to eat vegan cheese rather than normal cheese, but this stuff was stupidly delicious. Again, if you’d be interested, then let me know.

For now though, feta. I try to keep some feta cheese in the fridge most of the time, because it’s wonderful versatile and delicious. Whether you’re crumbling it on top of a salad, stirring it into a pasta dish, or having it in fritters, it will always give you a satisfying kick of salty flavour.

As before, I feel I need a rambling disclaimer: obviously, I am doing this in my kitchen and not in a lab and I am not a scientist. These are the opinions of one person – that said, one person who has been trained to taste for quality. Also, the products used in this series are just examples – obviously each supermarket has, say, eight or nine different types of feta cheese or whatever the product may be, and I’m not going to try every single one because what am I, made of money?

Finally, I should highlight that I tasted all the products blind, and at the time of tasting and making my notes I didn’t know which product came from which shop. I sat in one room while my glamorous assistant (er, my husband), prepared the samples in another. Any notes added regarding packaging and so on were only done after blind tasting, when I learned which supermarket had made A, B, C, D, or E.

The Blind Taste Test: Feta Cheese

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Feta
per 100g
£*
kcal
fat
carb
fibre
protein
salt
Lidl – Eridanous
0.50
278
23
0.7
0
17
2.2
 Totally Greek Feta Attis
1.00
276
23.0
0.7
0
16.5
2.25
Sainsbury’s
1.30
284
24.3
0.5
0.5
16.0
3.0
Tesco
0.60
279
23.0
1.0
0.0
16.9
1.9
Waitrose
1.25
283
24.2
0.2
0.3
15.9
3.15

A – Attis Totally Greek Feta – 4/10

  • Fair amount of water coming off it. Very smooth and soft, rather than crumbly. Tasted kind of like set cottage cheese – not particularly salty. Fine, but not great.

B – Tesco – 6/10

  • Less water coming off than A – firmer, and more crumbly – more pleasant to eat. Decent flavour, reasonably salty. Good, but not amazing.

C – Lidl – Eridanous – 8/10

  • Another firm and crumbly feta – what I would expect from feta texture. Well-flavoured, quite sharp with a lemony taste, good level of saltiness.

D – Waitrose – 7/10

  • Fairly firm, and somewhere in the middle regarding crumbliness. Saltty, rather than lemony. Not as flavoursome as C, but pleasant to eat.

E – Sainsbury’s – 6/10

  • Firm, no water coming off. Not crumbly like some others. Not overly salty, quite lemony, with a stronger cheese flavour.

Conclusion

Sample A seemed notably different to the other four samples, and it was my least favourite. It wasn’t necessarily bad, but did seem like a different kind of product, and less suited to my personal taste. Generally, any of the other four feta samples would do me just fine, although once again the Lidl cheese was my favourite. Turns out, Lidl do good cheese.

That said, none of these samples were anything like as good as the feta from Blackwoods Cheese Company that I brought from 2 North Parade a few weeks after doing this taste test. It’s not a day-to-day supermarket purchase, and it’s pretty extravagant, so it doesn’t really belong here. But if you’re looking for something special then go and buy it – you won’t regret it.

Otherwise, go to Lidl!

*Prices correct at time of writing.

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The Taste Test: Cat Food

Week after week, Freddie watches me make and photograph recipes for this blog. She’s stared at us plaintively while we’ve done taste tests, protesting vociferously with her accusing eyes and surprisingly loud and expressive yowls at the unfairness of it all. Here we are, cooking and tasting and enjoying all this food. And what does she get? The same boring old cat food. Just out of a pouch, day after day. Well, except yesterday, when she caught a weasel and brought it proudly to us. (True story. It was mildly horrifying.)

So, to lessen her ire and to help protect the lives of the small woodland creatures dwelling around us, we’ve finally, just this once, let her in on the fun. Welcome to the cat food taste test.

(By the way, this is obviously a joke blog post, but it does have a slightly serious kernel – have you read the ingredients list on any cat food product lately!? For the standard brands – Felix and so on – it is literally 4% chicken or whatever meat flavour it’s supposed to be, 82% water and 2.5% crude ash! Among other things.)

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As before, I feel I need a rambling disclaimer: obviously, Freddie is doing this in our kitchen and not in a lab and she is not a scientist. These are the opinions of one cat– that said, one cat who is used to the freshly killed mice and weasels of Oxfordshire and expects high quality. Also, the products used in this series are just examples – obviously each supermarket has, say, eight or nine different types of cat food or whatever the product may be, and Freddie isn’t going to try every single one because her humans are cruel and didn’t buy them all.

Finally, I should highlight that Freddie tasted all the products blind, and at the time of tasting she didn’t know which product was which. She sat in one room while her slaves prepared the samples. Any notes added regarding packaging and so on were only done after tasting, when she learned which brand had made A, B, C, D, E, or F.

The Blind Taste Test: Cat Food

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A – Sheba Fine Flakes with Chicken – £5.88 per kg – 8/10

  • A contender from the start: this is the food I immediately gravitated towards. Strong and meaty. Would definitely eat again.

B – Sainsbury’s ‘The Delicious Collection’ Chicken Breast – £7.06 per kg – 7/10

  • A bit too heavy on the jelly and light on the chicken for my taste, but a good flavour and decent quality meat.

C – Gourmet Perle Tuna and Whole Shrimps in Gravy – £6.47 per kg – 6/10

  • I question the wisdom of putting tuna and shrimp in gravy. Surely gravy is for meat rather than fish? But I did enjoy the whole shrimps.

D – Encore Pacific Tuna & Whitebait – £14.28 per kg – 9/10

  • Delicious. I can’t resist a good fish dish. (Hannah’s note: I am not saying I would eat cat food but if I had to it would be this one. Here are the ingredients: Tuna Fillet 65%, Fish Broth 24%, Whitebait 10%, Rice 1%, Additives: None. No ash in sight.)

E – Gourmet Classic Soup – £22.50 per kg – 1/10

  • This is apparently a ‘delicately refined broth’. I’m not buying it. I’m a cat and we don’t eat soup.(Hannah’s note: she literally would not touch this, even after I took all the other food away.)

F – Felix with Tuna – £5 per kg – 5/10

  • I feel like that cat on the packet is watching me and I do not appreciate it.

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Conclusion

Cats will eat live mice. They don’t really care what cat food you feed them, as long as it kind of looks like some sort of meat.

They do draw the line at cat soup, though.

By the way, technically Freddie isn’t our cat.

*Prices correct at time of writing.

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The Taste Test: Eggs

A couple of you asked that I put eggs to the test for this series, and I was only too happy to oblige. It’s actually turned out to be a particularly interesting experience. This taste test has been unique so far among all those that I’ve done: you can see why in my conclusions below.

Firstly though, an introduction. It’s basically my dream to own my own chickens (simple pleasures for simple minds and so on). The idea of having pets that actually produce beautiful, fresh eggs for us to eat is stupidly appealing. However, we don’t have a garden, so it’s a dream I have had to put on hold. Also, I’d need a lot of chickens. I go through a lot of eggs. I am a baker, so it comes with the territory.

I think a lot of people buy free range eggs nowadays, knowing vaguely that it’s a good thing. In the UK, 2% of eggs purchased are organic, 47% of them come from free range hens, 48% are from caged birds and the rest are from barn hens.

Sadly, though, ‘free range’ isn’t such a high welfare standard as it sounds. In the EU (sob, let’s not get into it right now), free range hens have constant daytime access to the outdoors. Standards also dictate a maximum stocking density of 9 hens per square metre of ‘usable’ space. There are a few other requirements, which you can check out on good old Wikipedia if you’re interested.

However, organic eggs must meet all the basic free range requirements, and then many more. Here’s a handy summary from the Soil Association (the whole article is very useful):

‘Organic chickens are raised to organic standards, which not only means free-range but a whole lot more. Organic standards cover not only the animals housing and the amount of space they have, but also the way they are treated, what they are fed and how they are transported and eventually slaughtered. They are not allowed to be fed on GM feed (which is common in free-range and non-organic hens). Chickens must not have their beaks trimmed to try and prevent feather pecking and are given plenty of opportunities to express their natural behaviours such as – foraging, bathing in the dust outside and pecking at insects and worms on grass fields.’

In summary: organic eggs come from happier chickens. With that in mind, I set out to taste test some of the happiest eggs I could find, to see if budget versions that conformed to high standards were any different from the fanciest of them all.

As before, I feel I need a rambling disclaimer: obviously, I am doing this in my kitchen and not in a lab and I am not a scientist. These are the opinions of one person – that said, one person who has been trained to taste for quality. Also, the products used in this series are just examples – obviously each supermarket has, say, eight or nine different types of eggs or whatever the product may be, and I’m not going to try every single one because what am I, made of money?

Finally, I should highlight that I tasted all the products blind, and at the time of tasting and making my notes I didn’t know which product came from which shop. I sat in one room while my glamorous assistant (er, my husband), prepared the samples in another. Any notes added regarding packaging and so on were only done after blind tasting, when I learned which supermarket had made A, B, C, D, or E.

The Blind Taste Test: Eggs

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Eggs
£ (6 eggs/328g)*
General Info
Aldi – Merevale
1.39 (328)
Organic, RSPCA Assured, Lion, Class A
Lidl – Woodcote
1.39 (328)
Organic, RSPCA Assured, Lion, Class A
Sainsbury’s – TTD
1.85 (328g)
RSPCA Assured, Free Range, Lion, Class A
Tesco
1.80 (328g)
Organic, Free Range, Lion, Class A
Waitrose – Duchy
2.75 (6 large)
Organic, Free Range, Lion, Class A

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Now, I haven’t done all of the usual nutritional information this week because they’re eggs and it doesn’t really work like that. I have, though, noted what the packaging states about the eggs’ standards. You’ll also see from the photos that the sizes of the eggs vary quite a bit. That’s because some of the half dozens I purchased were of mixed sizes and some were large. All had to meet a minimum weight of 328g though.

You’re also not getting any tasting notes this week. You know why? They all tasted like decent boiled eggs. Really, pretty much exactly the same – or so close to it that I couldn’t taste a difference.

A – Sainsbury’s – Taste the Difference

B – Lidl – Woodcote

C – Tesco

D – Aldi – Merevale

E – Waitrose – Duchy

I’m far from an expert, but here’s a very basic guide to the classifications.

  • Class A simply means the eggs meet the basic standards for retail in the UK – size, cleanliness, basic quality and so on.
  • The Lion mark is about food safety and legal requirements, not hen welfare.
  • RSPCA assured means the farms where the eggs were produced meet the RSPCA’s welfare standards. These are less stringent than organic standards, but still higher than basic free range (and the products are often cheaper than organic options).
  • Organic and/or a Soil Association mark represents the gold standard of welfare.

Conclusion

The conclusion this week is pretty simple. All the eggs taste pretty much the same, so if you’re going to buy high welfare eggs, you may as well buy the cheapest ones that meet the standards you are happy with. The Aldi and Lidl eggs were marked organic and thus met the welfare standard, but are almost less than half the price of the Waitrose eggs.

Although if I have to pick a winner, I pick Aldi. You can just about see in the picture above that the Aldi egg I tried (D) has a double yolk. I’m pretty sure that means I get to be lucky forever or something like that.

*Prices correct at time of writing.

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Review: Nadiya’s British Food Adventure, by Nadiya Hussain

Nadiya’s personality shines through her latest cookbook, Nadiya’s British Food Adventure: you can’t help but love her. I saw her interviewed by Barney Desmazery in Oxford a couple of weeks ago, and ‘charming’ doesn’t cover it. Nadiya is warm, candid, bright, and very funny in person – expressive and quick-witted, with a natural comic’s timing.

It’s unsurprising that Nadiya’s been back on our television screens once again for Nadiya’s British Food Adventure. This follows last year’s The Chronicles of Nadiya and, of course, her Bake Off win. She’s a natural food presenter, friendly and casual, seemingly at ease and knowledgeable without being condescending. Having interviewed her last year, I always feel particular interest whenever she pops up in the public eye. Even though she has no chance of remembering the five minutes we spent chatting, I like to think that somehow our brief meeting made us best mates. Hey, it could happen.

Her latest book is accessible and welcoming, packed with little stories and anecdotes about her family and friends. There are also over 120 new recipes. The general idea is that the recipes are Nadiya’s takes on British classics, or new ways with traditional British ingredients. The book shows us a culinary landscape where tradition is turned on its head. Eggy bread is updated with masala. A classic steak and kidney pie marries with the North African spice mix, ras el hanout. A rice pudding meets caradamom, mango, coconut, and lime.

On an initial flick-through of the book, I could see lots of recipes that I was keen to try out – always a good sign. The photography is pretty clean and modern, and the dishes pictured look enticing. Though Nadiya is probably still best known for winning Bake Off, the book is packed with mostly savoury recipes. Never fear though – there’s a sweet section at the end! It’s organised roughly into meal times and occasions – breakfast, lunch, dinner, parties and so on – and is easy to navigate.

The Recipes

The first recipe I tried was the Crab Cakes with Lemon Mayo, a recipe for pretty classic crab cakes spiced up with coriander, chilli, and ginger. I love crab, hence my eagerness to try this, although I did baulk slightly at the amount called for because 850g crabmeat is expensive. In fairness, the recipe does specify that either tinned or fresh crab can be used. However, although I tried three supermarkets, I couldn’t find any tinned crab, so I had to go with fresh in the end.

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The recipe was easy to follow. I particularly appreciated the tip for making mashed potato. Nadiya suggests you simply microwave a large potato for 15 minutes. This saved me from automatically going down my normal, and far more time consuming, mashed potato making route. I did find the crab cakes spectacularly hard to fry, as they kept falling apart in the pan. I suspect my mixture was somehow too wet, although I followed the ingredients and method to the letter for the sake of testing. The finished result was undeniably delicious. Even though the recipe made 24 little cakes, they didn’t last for very long at all in our two person household.

Next up was the Lamb Bhuna with Garlic Naan. I am by no means a curry expert, but the recipe was generally simple to follow and didn’t include any hard-to-find ingredients. The finished curry was delicious, with a gorgeous warm and complex spiced flavour. However, mine had a lot more sauce than the fairly dry curry shown in the book’s picture. When making it again, I will cook it for at least half an hour more than suggested in the recipe, and add less liquid.

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There was what I’d consider to be a pretty serious flaw in the recipe, though, and that was in the method for the naan. The recipe instructs you to add water to the dough without telling you how much to add, or even how soft a dough you are aiming for. There’s no water listed in the ingredients for the bread, and there are no instructions to measure any for the naan at another point in the recipe. I make bread a lot, so I made an educated guess, and the naan turned out fine. For someone less familiar with the process, though, I think it would be a bit of an issue.

The Caramelised Onion Soup with Cayenne Croutons was a simple twist on a classic recipe. The flavours of cayenne and thyme enhance the old favourite. It’s the sort of recipe which takes a bit of time, but it’s mostly passive time – waiting for the onions to brown and then simmer and so on. It’s well worth the wait for the end result. I made it looking for a simple lunch option, and wasn’t disappointed.

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The last recipe I tested was the Apple, Fig, Brie, & Honey Strudel. It’s from the ‘Pudding’ section of the book, but it’s actually an interesting hybrid, because it’s not massively sweet. I went for it because it seemed unusual, and it definitely was. I really loved the combinations of flavours. I’d be tempted to serve it with ice cream or something else to up the sweetness if I was doing it for a proper dessert, but actually, if you leave off the icing sugar it’s almost savoury enough to pass for lunch.

My strudel was not nearly as pretty as the one pictured in the book: I’d personally recommend popping the puff pastry in the fridge for at least half an hour (rather than the fifteen minutes specified) before plaiting. I also found the brie leaked out of the strudel fairly drastically in the oven, probably due to my poor plaiting leaving gaps from which it could escape. Nonetheless, I’d recommend freezing the brie for ten or fifteen minutes after slicing and before putting in the strudel, so that it’s cooked but not melted in a puddle by the time the strudel is done.

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The conclusion?

There’s a lot to like about this book. Nadiya’s writing is clear, warm, and very readable: the book has character. It’s full of tempting recipes, and there are plenty more I’d like to cook. I’m particularly pleased to see offal popping up a couple of times, and there’s a chicken liver salad I am very keen to try. There’s a good balance struck between adventurous and accessible dishes. Really, the book has something for everyone, regardless of preferences or skill level.

Having worked my way though a couple of the recipes, I do feel like there are a couple of adjustments that could be made. For the sake of testing, I followed the recipes, but had I been cooking casually I would have instinctively made some changes going along. I think some of the recipes I tried would benefit from minor changes that illustrate the end goals. For example, ‘leave the bhuna to simmer gently for 30 minutes with the lid on’ could be ‘simmer the bhuna for around 30 minutes, or until the majority of the liquid has evaporated and you’re left with a thick, clinging sauce’, or an instruction to chill pastry for 15 minutes could specify instead that you should chill the pastry until firm and easy to work with. This is basically just me being picky, though.

The main thing to note is that James and I really enjoyed all the food I have cooked using recipes from Nadiya’s British Food Adventure this week. The ultimate compliment is that there haven’t been any leftovers. I’m really quite sad that there is no more strudel.

Taste-Test-Chocolate

The Taste Test: Dark Chocolate

Anyone who has spent any time with me will know that I am a chocolate person. I know it’s a stereotype (women and chocolate, blah blah blah), but I love it. There are so many chocolate related posts on this blog that I couldn’t even begin to link to them all.

I’m the person who will always gravitate towards chocolate as a treat rather than crisps or pizza. I will always choose the chocolate dessert in a restaurant. I make brownies upon brownies upon brownies. To truly mark the obsession, I just did a chocolate workshop. This is my bag, basically.

Now, I will very happily eat white, milk, or dark chocolate. I know white chocolate isn’t technically chocolate and so on, but a very good quality white chocolate is a thing of beauty, and don’t even get me started on caramelised white chocolate, which is the food of the gods (I will do a post on how to make it, if you are interested). But, for the sake of fairness here, I had to go for something simple, so that I could get equivalent samples. Hence, five types of plain 70% dark chocolate.

70% dark chocolate is what I use in baking all the time, so I am pretty attached to it, and always have a few bars in the cupboard for short-notice baking emergencies (happens more often than you might think). Usually, though, I go for whichever name-brand is on offer at the supermarket. Often, I end up with Lindt 70%. So I was curious to see how other 70% dark chocolates measured up.

As before, I feel I need a rambling disclaimer: obviously, I am doing this in my kitchen and not in a lab and I am not a scientist. These are the opinions of one person – that said, one person who has been trained to taste for quality. Also, the products used in this series are just examples – obviously each supermarket has, say, eight or nine different types of dark chocolate or whatever the product may be, and I’m not going to try every single one because what am I, made of money?

Finally, I should highlight that I tasted all the products blind, and at the time of tasting and making my notes I didn’t know which product came from which shop. I sat in one room while my glamorous assistant (er, my husband), prepared the samples in another. Any notes added regarding packaging and so on were only done after blind tasting, when I learned which supermarket had made A, B, C, D, or E.

The Blind Taste Test: Dark Chocolate

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Chocolate
per 100g
£*
kcal
fat
carb
fibre
protein
salt
Aldi
1.03
574
43.0
30.0
14.0
9.8
0.01
Lidl
1.03
547
40
33
12
7.8
0.03
Sainsburys
1.45
547
40.2
31.9
12.2
8.4
0.02
Tesco
1.50
577
41.9
37.0
9.7
8.1
0.01
Waitrose
2.19
565
41.0
34.0
12.0
9.0
0.02

A – Lidl – J.D. Gross – 6/10

  • Good texture – a nice snap when broken. Creamy when eaten. A fairly sharp, bitter flavour with hints of coffee. A decent dark chocolate I’d happily eat, but not surprising or very special.

B – Aldi – Moser Roth – 7/10

  • Slightly softer and less bitter than the first sample, but still strong. A hint of fruitiness in the taste. A bold and dark flavour, and a velvety texture when eaten.

C – Tesco – 7/10

  • Another good texture. Tasted sweeter and softer than either A or B, with a less obvious bitterness. A slight orange/fruity taste in the background, and fairly creamy when eaten.

D – Waitrose – 8/10

  • Tasted somehow more chocolatey than the first three samples (sounds silly, but it did). Fruity and soft, and not too bitter – very mellow, especially in comparison to A and B. Tasted definitely different to the others, with a distinctive fruitiness.

E – Sainsbury’s – 5/10

  • Very distinctive flavour: maybe a hint of coconut. Hard to describe, but not as pleasing as the first four samples. Not too bitter, and quite soft and sweet in flavour. For me, the least appealing.

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Conclusion

This was an interesting taste test, and somewhat different to any of the others I have done so far. I don’t think any of the products I tried were bad. Even the offering from Sainsbury’s, which I liked the least on balance, was perfectly fine. Whether or not you like each type of chocolate will depend very much on personal taste and what you are looking for. Aldi and Lidl’s offerings were of a different style to the others. Neither supermarket did their own named-brand, and instead stocked J.D. Gross (made for Lidl) and Moser Roth (made for Aldi).

Even though Aldi and Lidl’s products were 70% cocoa dark chocolates, as were the rest, they were notably darker and tasted more bitter. You could even see visually that they looked darker. So, for those who like their dark chocolate to be pretty strong and not too sweet, these would be perfect. The others were all mellower, sweeter, and tasted like they were a lower cocoa percentage than the first two, even though they weren’t.

Personally, I would eat or use any of these products. Now that I have more experience of the range available, I might use the Aldi or Lidl darker chocolates for baking something rich and with a distinctive dark chocolate flavour.  The others might do better in something designed to be more accessible; perhaps for people who don’t have such a taste for serious dark chocolate.

So, for the first time, I am not going to pick an official winner this week. If I was just eating the chocolate, unadorned, I’d probably go with the Waitrose offering. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily better than the others. The Aldi and Lidl products were clearly of a different genre, and trying to do a different thing. Which chocolate would be best of the bunch would be entirely dependent on your personal taste, and what you wanted to use it for.

*Prices correct at time of writing.