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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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Yorkshire Tea

Monday 11 Dec 2006

Yorkshire Tea biscuits are not new in fact by my reckoning they have been around for a bit over three years now. At their launch they were and still are the only biscuit that Taylors of Harrogate, who are perhaps best known for their teas and tea rooms, produce. From this we can instantly gauge a number of important things. That Taylors do not take the business of producing new biscuits lightly, and that the biscuits have gone way past the eight month or so flash in the pan period and must have gained themselves some loyal customers. Definitely worth a look then.

Unlike a great many purveyors of tea and the various goodies that accompany it Bettys and Taylors have an excellent set of websites devoted to the various strings in their bows. From their iconic Betty's Tea rooms in Harrogate which date back to 1919, to their Tea and Coffee business, their online store (worth a good look before Christmas too) and even their own cookery school. It's their Yorkshire Tea brand that we'll be zeroing in on for this review.

Many's the time that we've mentioned Yorkshire tea's free trial size pack of forty teabags that anyone can claim (in the UK that is) just by going to their website. Indeed many's the time that we have trialed Yorkshire Tea and are quite partial to it as a result. Tom, our book editor swears by it, but then he is from Yorkshire, and the two facts can not be entirely separated. Wifey and I had the distinct pleasure at a literary lunch last summer for the Oldie Magazine, where I had been invited to speak, of having our arrival preceded by a large consignment of said 40 bag trial boxes for the attendees to sample. A very nice surprise laid on by the good people of Taylors. If I were to be an X Man then my special mutant powers would involve being able to summon forth tea bags in great quantities at lunch time prior to my turning up, and I expect I would be called 'Tea-Boy'. Needless to say a great many tea trials took place back at Tom's office.

So edging closer to the matter at hand, we find that a small quantity of Yorkshire tea has turned up in the biscuits. Its down there after the flour, butter a very respectable 30%, sugar and cornflour. Upon tucking in I couldn't tell you if I noticed the 1% tea infusion or not. What was amply apparent after the crisp buttery crunch of the biscuit had subsided were the next set of ingredients, cinnamon, nutmeg, and natural vanilla and almond flavouring. All of which were subtly frolicking in the buttery flavour. Of these the one that I immediately picked up upon before even realising it was in the ingredients was the nutmeg. Shortbread with a generous hint of nutmeggy custard tart.

At the mention of custard tarts we will no doubt attract Google's attention as the US has a fair amount of its citizens searching the interweb for someplace to buy them despite not really knowing what they are. Apparently they are mentioned in the BBC sitcom 'As time goes by' with Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer. Americans who have watched the series when it has aired in the states then go off in search of somewhere that sells them. I have written several explainly emails to Americans trying to bang the square peg of custard creams into the round hole of custard tarts about how they are small sweet pastry cases filled with baked egg custard. Unless you have somewhere local that makes them, unlikely I'll grant you, then you should make your own. In fact Nanny Nicey used to knock them up on a regular basis when I was little and I think this was where the biscuits were gently leading me back to. Once again we find ourselves in Proust territory.

So from all of this you may have inferred correctly that I liked them, but there is a much more important issue staring us in the face. They are shaped like a capital letter T. Once I had amused myself biting off the sticking out bits I then moved on to the next most obvious activity, calculating the diameter of a conventional round biscuit that matched this one in surface area. At 70mm x 62mm with a cut out area of 50mmx42mm I made the surface area 2,240mm2. This equates to a round biscuit of about 54mm diameter, roughly the size of a Gingernut. Due to the bevelled edges the top is smaller than the bottom by about 5mm and the depth is 10mm. Be my guest if you want to make some volumetric comparisons with other biscuits. However I've concluded that they are definitely on the dainty side, especially given that there are only 12 in the pack.

If you need a final bit of cajoling then there is one final website in the Betty's and Taylors stable that we haven't mentioned, Trees for Life. For the last 16 years Taylors have been donating back a proportion of their profits, at least 100,000 a year to plant trees in the areas and communities around the world that provide the tea and coffee that their business is based upon. The biscuits came with a cut out token and if you send in four of them they'll donate an extra fifty pence, which is of course very nice of them.

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