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Japanese McVities Digestives

Wednesday 28 Mar 2007

Turn away now if you are one of those deranged people that can't accept the theory of evolution, and thinks the Grand Canyon was knocked up geologically speaking a blink of an eye ago after a brief downpour. Right are we free to continue? Good because this week we we will be looking at what happens when you take a trusty stalwart of British tea time, the McVities Digestive and introduce it into a completely new biscuit eco-system, Japan. Given the unprecedented amount biscuits we've crammed into to our little accompanying graphic (big one here) you can see its a evolutionary explosion of shape, size, taste and even colour.

If this biscuit review gives rise to a new branch of science then frankly we'll be both amazed and quite proud. If it doesn't I wouldn't mind betting that somebody out there will at least come up with something similar by way of a research proposal. "The introduction of foreign biscuits into exotic markets, their adaptation and evolution" or maybe they've already done it.

Yes, ace Japanese biscuit correspondent Hiromi Miura, having worked us up into a biscuit curiosity frenzy after she told us about purple digestives took pity on NCOTAASD and sent a big box Japanese Digestives our way. Made in Japan under licence from United Biscuits by Meiji Seika Kaisha Ltd who picked up the ball and ran and ran and ran with it. Unless you can read Japanese you won't glean much from their website but if you have your speakers turned on then you can enjoy a bunch of people chanting an excellently tuneless jingle "Yum Ya! Yum (something or other) McVities" over and over (warning this may present a choking hazard to adults as well as small children).

So what exactly has happened to the poor little fellas since their arrival in Japan? Well for the get go the Japanese have made them a lot smaller, and in general this seems to the norm for most Japanese biscuits which are about 40% smaller than we would find normal. At a petite 52mm in diameter but a healthy 9mm in depth the reference standard unadulterated Japanese McVities Digestive doesn't appear overly strange. It tastes sufficiently similar that one would have a very tough time saying that this was anything other than a Digestive even if it isn't an exact 100% dead ringer for the UK one. Like most of the biscuits here it is packed into little mini sachets containing four biscuits each, and then four of these are popped into a cardboard box.

Moving to the Vanilla cream sandwich version we still seem to be in Kansas, or should that be Harlesden in Middlesex. The biscuits have dropped to 46mm by 5mm but the vanilla cream tastes just like it was borrowed from a Crawfords Custard Cream. When we get to the Milk Chocolate Digestive the illusion begins to crumble or maybe that should be melt, as its the chocolate that gives the game away. Its not bad, its not even wrong, its just not the same, in much the same way lots of other Chocolate Digestives made outside Europe's biggest biscuit factory aren't the same. The biscuit finally gives in and succumbs to some tinkering in the Cocoa Digestive whose cocoa flavoured biscuit waves bye bye to the shores of blighty. In the UK McVities have been mucking about with Digestives feverously for last few years since lifting their own self imposed non-proliferation treaty, but apart from the Lemon and Ginger digestive, their first unsuccessful foray they have left the biscuit well alone.

And now it all starts to get a bit squiffy as wandering in a dream where the familiar has collided with something random that entered your brain when you were watching on TV late at night an hour and and half after you really should have called it a day. The first one that happens along into view is the Kurogo digestive, so named because it has lots of Kurogo in it, which has turned it a sort bonfire ash colour. Kurogo is a mixture of 5 types of small black grain, black rice, black sesame, black bean, black quince and black pine nut ideal food for goths you might think, or in this case Japanese health food lovers. I've tasted Black Sesame in other Japanese biscuits and so could pick out that flavour, a distinctive hard baked crusty bread sort of taste, tucked into discrete pockets.

Then to the bizarre Purple Sweet Potato digestives that landed us here. We have strolled right up to the wizard of Oz and tapped him on the shoulder here. For in our hands we are holding a purple biscuit, made with powered sweet potato, more black sesame seeds and stamped with the word McVities. No it doesn't taste remotely like a Digestive biscuit.

Black Cheesecake Digestive Crackers don't even bother looking like a Digestives any longer and seem to be some experiment to cross an Oreo with Lu Prince biscuit and all in the name of McVities. Still the recipe does have cheese powder in it which is novel.

And finally the little bags of mini sandwich digestives confirm that it must have been the wizard of Oz we were watching as the ruby slipper red strawberry ones fight with the emerald cream filled green tea ones to see which can weird us out the most. The banana creme ones look on blinking, a little unsure on why they were brought into existance other than to remind us of those banana sweets that used to hang out with pink shrimps.

None of the biscuits here were beyond the pale, as we have found so often from other neighbours of Japan, but it is astounding to see what the Japanese can do given a simple Digestive as their building block. Imagine what they would get up to with a Jammie Dodger!

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Maryland Specials Raisin, Oat, Choc Chunk and Maple Syryp Cookies

Tuesday 20 Feb 2007

I've always thought it must be exciting to be in on the launch of a new product. You've had your best and most experienced back room boys and girls working away coming up with some terrific new ideas, something really special. So now it's up to you to come up with branding, product values, an advertising campaign and a new name. You block book the conference room and brainstorm new names all morning, and again for an hour after lunch although by now you're starting to flag. You might even bring in a consultant at extraordinary cost who specialises in coming up with names, who two weeks later in a sixty page document essentially tells you to go with the first one you thought of as unfortunately he hasn't got any good ideas this time. Then again you could probably save a lot of time and energy just calling it a 'special' and listing out half of what's in it.

So our biscuit eating this week has stumbled through the middle of a pack of Maryland Specials which hail from Burtons's Foods whose long established Maryland cookies are the most popular choc chip cookies in the UK. At first glance this would appear to a luxury version of the well loved standard Maryland. Bigger and softer, Burton's haven't taken any chances on the contents and have seemed to bung just about everything to hand in these. Raisins, Choc Chunks, Oats, Maple (flavoured) syrup there's even some Cinnamon as a parting shot on the ingredients. It could of course go one of two ways. You somehow cast your net wider and draw more interest or you increase the amount of things in it not to like. Personally I've got no problems with any of the above so dived in.

Now this could have been a simple open and shut case but the side of the pack appears to carry Burton's play for the now fashionable wholesome sector. Here we find the rather amusing spelling out of the brand values. The text talks of honest to goodness family values, the great outdoors, cookie lovers just like you, authentic and wholesome ingredients free from nasties. It finishes up by reassuring us that these have been baked in the traditional Maryland way. Well plainly they haven't as they are bigger and softer than traditional Maryland cookies we all know. So this 'way' must be more of a cultural orientation rather than an ISO 9001 certified industrial process, documented, signed by directors and deposited in a safe.

They could have left it at that but keen fill up the remaining space they tacked on a few tick boxes starting with that most traditional of baffling statements - made with real fruit. Immediately the mind races trying to think of times in the past when artificial raisins have found their into ones diet - or even just times when a raisin looked a bit shifty. Also what would be involved in trying to make an artificial raisin? Surely it would be tricky to get the taste, texture and skins just right. They would be bound to end up costing several times more than the real thing. It's just not worth the bother, so therefore the real fruit claim fails to win me over although I am semi-fondly reminded of some strange pie filling stuff from the pioneering 1970s that had lumps of not real fruit in it.

Next we are told no hydrogenated fats, good it is 2007 after all but as we are always quick to point out the phrase vegetable oil covers a great many things some lovelier than others. No preservatives, well actually its very rare that there are any. Finally non GM - well quite, that would be suicidal. It didn't go on to say no hidden exploding bolts or no man with a gun who stalks you from the shadows as you leave the shop but I was perfectly amenable to that by this stage.

Setting down the marketing spiel and picking up the biscuits I wasn't that moved either. Burton's have made some really terrific biscuits of late that have combined fruit and chocolate. The really tricky thing about a soft cookie is it can easily come across as more damp than oven fresh. So whist the fruit and choc chunks were interesting the overall effect was not as engaging. Still you may well like them like that. Personally I was left more bewildered than satisfied which I suppose counts as entertainment even if the biscuits passed me by somewhat.

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Naturally Fox's

Tuesday 16 Jan 2007

New Year - New Biscuits! Yes January the month when it seems the mighty wheels of commerce want to cash in our guilty feelings about all the stuff they persuaded us to buy and consume in December. The TV barrages us with adverts for things to help us diet, eat healthier, quit smoking and make our skin look younger. These in turn jostle for attention with an equal barrage of adverts for enormous vulgar sofas which we are told we won't even have to begin to pay for until they are covered in stains, pet hairs, starting to fall apart and are harbouring a slurry of errant dry roast peanuts and Pringles. Revered biscuit bakers Fox's have chosen this turbulent month to launch a range of back to basics biscuits which should appeal to those who value the simpler things in life. Have they started the year with a change for the better?

This is Fox's play for roughly the same growing market sector that McVities Fruitsters, which we reviewed last year, are aimed at, the so called Healthy eating sector. The immediate problem here is that a biscuit is never going to be an ideal candidate as a health food, a fact that virtually all of us are aware of and comfortable with. One approach is wave to around your attractive whole grains and dried fruit as McVities have done and divert attention away from the ever present and biscuit prerequisites of fat and sugar. The sort of thing Trinny and Suzanna do with necklines and stripes. Fox's have taken another approach, refreshing and direct, which I think will be engaging for the concerned consumer.

Rather than skirt round the fat and sugar Fox's have made it their starting point and thrust them to the fore. Raw cane Demerara sugar and butter to be precise. Fox's even go as far as telling us on the pack how the biscuits are made with a little mini-recipe. Conception begins with the creaming of the butter and sugar. Some flour, a bit of baking soda, a drop of water and the various other simple things such as oats, raisins, stem ginger are added. Rolled and cut into simple squares and baked until golden. We might not have been present at the birth, but we were probably just out side in the corridor having a cup of tea and wondering why it's really necessary to turn off our mobile phones? Actually the social stigma of possibly causing some terrible but unseen medical emergency in a maternity hospital seems enough to send most of us to the car park rather than investigate further.

Since the great casting out of hydrogenated fats from biscuits recipes and textures have struggled as manufacturers turned in general to vegetable oils. I know we have been over this ground many times recently but in a post hydrogenated fat landscape how do you make a biscuit that actually tastes like an old school one? Some have silently adopted a bit of palm oil which is naturally high in saturated fat and helps to make a more familiar textured biscuit. Unfortunately it nurtures an industry that directly destroys primary rain forest to replace it with mono cultures of palm trees. Obviously a bit of a bad thing for biodiversity, this in turn leads to the wholesale wiping out of such species as the Orang-utan. I don't want my arteries to harden but I don't want to jeopardise a follow up to Every which way but loose. There are also those in the developing world no doubt who would point out that Europeans visited a similar fate on their forests long ago in order to create fields and pastures. There are also those who could tell us about the problems with dairy farming, but it seems closer to a status quo that the vast majority accept. The long and short of it, I'll gladly take butter, and it makes a far nicer biscuit.

So before I risk a total descent into some Ben Elton style tirade against the forces of global capitalism and a revealing look at our own agricultural hypocrisy - lets take a look at the biscuits (sighs of relief all round I expect).

Nothing could be easier, they are all of them delicious, all five varieties Wholemeal Yorkshire shortbread, Honey and Oat, Raisin and Pecan nut, Dark Chocolate and Stem Ginger and finally Dark Chocolate and Macadamia Nut. In fact the only possible exception I could take is that there are only nine in the pack, which is three less than that important psychological milestone of a dozen. We dropped a mixture of all of them into the trusty NCOTAASD biscuit tin, and it feels like a winning hand which ever combination you pull out.

I think Fox's have shown the way with this new range. We all know we shouldn't live on biscuits and if any of you have resolved this New year to cut back a bit on your biscuit intake then shouldn't you have a really decent one when you do?

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