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Leafy Pie and Green Tea Pocky

Tuesday 21 Jun 2005

We all know that the Japanese are bonkers, but surely they must put all that on hold when they take a pause in their busy days for a cup of something or other (I'm being deliberately vague here) and a biccy. Well probably not, which is really what we were hoping for. So when Tom our book editor said he had brought back some biscuits for us from Japan after visiting his sister in the New Year we were quietly optimistic. When he also added that his sister had suggested some really nice shops were you can get really wonderful morsels and Tom had said 'No I think we should just go the nearest 7 to 11', we knew we would be in for a treat.

Looking like an after shave box, all black with bronze details, or possibly something to do with golf, Leafy Pies seem as if they are aimed at the gold medallion wearing segment of the Japanese biscuit buying public. If you still hadn't made your mind up then manufacturer Morinaga have added the English strap line 'The New Standard Biscuit'. This is the sort of excellent nonsense we were after. Turfing around their website which is a very odd mixture of 90% Japanese and 10% English reveals that they use this as their company wide strap line, it's that good. They also have some biscuits called 'Well'. Perhaps they are working on some new ones called 'Errm', and 'Actually'.

Inside the box are six small yellow sachets with a design on them that looks like a small bronze and black tartan ribbon with a gold leafy pie seal on it. The small sachet is something we have come to expect of oriental biscuits, and is preposterously small by western tea break standards. The two petite leafy pies within compared to chocolate digestive look like a juggernaut parked next to a mini. The leafy pie is very light indeed, and this would appear to be due to it being entirely hollow. It would seem that those puff pastry pie lids that you get on steak pies in pubs might have been the inspiration for this biscuit. A thin sugary glaze and an upper coat of chocolate complete the package. Biting one of these fragile little biscuits causes it to collapse into a little apologetic ball of damp pie crust in your mouth. A mere few seconds later you find yourself wondering if you really did just eat it, or did you simply imagine the whole thing. If this is what the Japanese are used to then the effort in despatching a HobNob would probably leave them exhausted and gasping for breath.

Whilst he was at it Tom picked us up a pack of genuine Japanese Pocky as made by Glico. Having had lessons on the Japanese tea ceremony he plumped for a pack of Green Tea Pocky. Until now we had only experienced the French Mikado, a Pocky made under licence in France by LU. So the first thing we noticed was that the Japanese ones are much shorter and stockier than their Euro version. The Pocky is best described as a salt-less pretzel stick 80% dipped in a chocolate like coating. In this case the coating was a very particular sort of green. There was a strange and delicate perfume to them, that proved impossible to accurately pin down, sort of quince like was the nearest I could get. However biting in gave way to a sensation akin to eating spat out toothpaste foam with a twig. Although that sounds disgusting, it actually was quite an interesting experience.

So has my uninformed opinion of the Japanese changed since sampling their biscuits? No of course not, they are plainly bonkers.

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Dad's Cookies

Friday 27 May 2005

As you might expect the methods by which we select biscuits for Biscuit of the Week are complex and not simply a matter of just opening up what ever appears to be at the front or back of the NCOTAASD review cupboard. Well obviously sometimes that does happen, but just occasionally a biscuit will create a powerful calling, a bit like in the first Superman movie when Clark Kent goes to the barn to get his crystal which has started glowing bright green and is making the livestock all tense and uneasy. So ignoring Wifey's assertions that I should do the weird Japanese biscuits secured by our book's editor Tom, I have been drawn in by the tractor beam of a pack of Canadian biscuits, despite their usually off-putting title of cookies.

Some of the older biscuit eaters out there might have at this point be struggling to read this review due to large amounts of mist in the eyes. The name Dad's Cookies was unknown to me before starting NCOTAASD, but soon after I began receiving pleas for information on this biscuit which apparently was once available in the UK. Although I had no experience of it myself those who wrote to us about held it in very high regard indeed, remembering its large crunchy oaty biscuits and distinctive yellow packs with red logo. Indeed we created the missing in action section of the site in order to record the existence of such well liked but unavailable biscuits. Right from the start however something seemed odd about the Dad's Cookies messages. Why would a biscuit that disappeared in the 1970s be calling itself a 'cookie' when being sold in the UK? The reports seemed to indicate a mature and confident product, not some quick flash in the pan. Where did it come from and where did it go? The answer.. Canada (but you knew that because I already mentioned it).

Baked in Canada by Christie now part of Nabisco Canada which in turn is part of Kraft foods which in turn is part of and so on. Dad's cookies have been around for over 75 years which is a very respectable age for any biscuit, and requires that we afford it a certain amount of deference as befits its advanced years. Now, for some of that spooky green crystal action, as it turns out that company founder William Mellis Christie came to Canada in 1848 at the age of 19 from the small Scottish town of Huntly in Aberdeenshire. Yes, the same Huntly which gave us last weeks biscuits of the week from Deans of Huntly. Nabisco acquired Christie in 1928. Nabisco acquired our own Associated biscuits the umbrella company under which Huntley and Palmer, Peek Frean and Jacobs were, in 1982. Its matter of speculation on my part but perhaps there had been prior experimentation with introducing successful foreign lines into the UK through their distribution chain?

Anyhow down to business proper. The biscuits are in a lovely big glossy paper bag thing with a clever built bag tie so you can seal them back up again. Inside are ten packs of 2 biscuits in clear cellophane. As you might expect from a Canadian biscuit the pack is bilingual, one side in French and the other in English. This has the particular advantage of saying 'Biscuits' not 'Cookies' on the French side.

The biscuits are big, about 75mm across and 9mm deep. A rugged surface is flecked very occasionally with oat flakes, and very very occasionally some thing mysterious small and dark. First bites reveal this to be a hard, brittle and crunchy biscuit, with a noticeable touch of cinnamon, and there is a certain other flavour hiding in there too. A look a the ingredients and all is revealed, its raisins. However they appear to be shredded down to a fine tilth, and explains the little black flecks. Now normally I would be outraged by such a spectacle but as I've said we should give the septuagenerian biscuit some respect, and conclude that this is just their way. The oaty sugaryness was very pleasant, and the pack points out that its vegetable oil, not hydrogenated oil in the recipe. All very good.

What happened next took me by surprise some what. Having thought I had made all judgements necessary I revisited the pack the next day with a particularly nice cup of tea, and low and behold found my self fairly helplessly cutting a swathe through the little cellophane packs. I suddenly dawned on me, the biscuits were terrific. Oh dear, as I paid an arm and a leg for them in the Canadian shop just off of Covent Garden. Hardly an item for the weekly shop. And so the tale is complete, they drew me in, seduced me with their unfamiliar and exotic ways, and have now left me. The number of people missing Dad's cookies in the UK has just increased by one.

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Dean's Scottish Preserve Shortbread

Monday 16 May 2005

Scotland, a land of breathtaking natural beauty and tartan. One of the main strongholds of tartan has always been the packaging for shortbread, be it tin or cardboard box. This week's selection of shortbread biscuits from Dean's of Huntly are no exception, plumping for a fairly subdued dark green tartan with accents of teal and cornflower blue. The tartan is the Black Watch which was worn by the Gordon Highlanders prior to 1778. Huntly is the ancestral seat of the Clan Gordon and the home of the Gordon Highlanders. This provides the Scottish interest on a velum effect background. No gaudy wall to wall red tartan here, and a signal of something a bit different perhaps.

Now I know there are out there shortbread connoisseurs who'll declare one shortbread above another with texture seemingly playing a very large part in that judgement. Given that proper full spec shortbread is simply mixture of butter, sugar, plain flour and sometimes semolina, you would have thought that one lot is basically the same as another. I'm prepared to accept that some may be a bit more buttery and and some more sugary and conversely, from time to time, some more floury. So that said texture would be an important point in discerning one shortbread from another. However I have to say this does pass me by a bit and even that age old shortbread tactic of forming itself into various shapes, finger, petticoat tail, round things, often fails to grab my attention. So this batch from Dean's of Huntly has had to go that extra mile to register on the NCOTAASD review radar, and they've done it by enlisting some help from our old friend jam.

Now if I was in charge of the jam and shortbread engineering I would have probably just have made a bit of a hole and popped a dollop of jam in it. The shortbread visionaries at Dean's have taken the whole process one step further and mixed the jam in with the shortbread dough. To stablise the whole lot they've also enlisted some help from that other stalwart of Scottish cuisine (no not the deep fat fryer..) the oat. This has resulted in four shortbreads, Raspberry and Oatmeal, Lemon Curd and Oatflake, Orange Marmalade and Oatflake an Apple Crumble. I know: the last one isn't really a jam or preserve and it doesn't make overt oat claims but we'll cut them some slack after all its not easy pushing the envelope of shortbread endeavour, and there are some oats in there.

Dean's have been making shortbread commercially in the little town of Huntly Aberdeanshire since 1975. Helen's Dean batch of shortbread, made to help raise funds for her husband Bill's pipe band, attracted so much praise that she decided to set up a small bakery. Business grew steadily and in 1992 the business moved to a new purpose built bakery on the outskirts of town. Dean's take pride in the fact that production methods are really just the same as those first employed by Mrs Dean 30 years ago but scaled up somewhat. You can find out more about all of this on Dean's excellent website, as well as the various stockists and outlets for their products.

I first visited Scotland the following year in 1976 on holiday and if the swarms of horseflies and midges on Rannoch Moor had of had their way my blood drained husk would still be there today. Luckily we fled for our lives after two days and I survived Scotland's wildlife to this day to review its biscuits. So lets get down to it then.

The biscuits ten per pack are seated in a clear wrapped plastic tray. Puncture the plastic film and you immediately meet the aroma of your chosen flavour. Not only this but each biscuit flavour has its own subtle shading reflect its flavour. Actually in the case of the Raspberry this isn't that subtle, with the biscuits having a positively pink tinge to them. As this had so clearly violated my laws of shortbread anonymity I decided to start there first. Yes, absolutely no doubt that raspberries are to be found within, but not with out putting up a fight as the ingredients include some cornflower, not found in the other three.

So next to the Lemon Curd ones as I've always got a great deal of time for Lemon Curd. Straight away I couldn't help but notice that in the little picture of Mrs Dean making shortbread in her kitchen her hair has grown somewhat and she is now waring it in a ponytail. Perhaps the indicates that by now Mrs Dean was also making her own Lemon Curd, a family favourite according to extra bit of blurb on the box. The zesty smell of lemons announces the opening of this pack, and that extra bit of richness on the palette is balanced by some crunch from the oatflakes in that oh so important texture. Like wise the pony tailed Mrs Dean is in evidence on the Orange Marmalade shortbread as are the pieces of orange zest scattered trough out the biscuits.

Dean's tell me that the pony tailed Mrs Dean will be phased out so as we close out with the Apple Crumble shortbread Mrs Dean has reverted to her pre-Lemon Curd making hair style. The biscuits have more than a passing resemblance to a crunchy topped apple crumble, and I did find they left me with slight but noticeable custard craving. All in all some very useful offerings from a company that's not afraid to try something new but still keep it rooted in traditional recipes and baking.