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Monday 3 May 2004

Well I've been very busy of late, what with the new HQ to get sorted and the deadlines approaching on NiceCupOfTeaAndASitDown the book, so the biscuit reviews and sit downs for that matter have been a bit thin on the ground. So, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to take a look at some interesting biscuits that you might encounter when heading to the Mediterranean this summer, thanks to the expansion of the European Union. All baked in Malta by Regal biscuits there are some old favourites, some new twists on old themes and regional specialties. This week we'll look at three of their range, Imqaret, Muesli Digestives and Fig Rolls.

My source of information on Malta comes from Nanny Nicey who has been there twice. She says that most people travel round the island on a fleet on ancient yellow buses that date back to the 1930s, many of which have holes where you would normally expect to find floors, windows or doors. In the capital Valletta the buses congregate around the fountains near the city gate, which is where you can buy from a cake stall the local speciality of Imqaret, date filled and deep fried pastries. They are very frequently seen at the village Fiestas which take place through out the summer months. It is as much part of the summer/fiesta scene as are our toffee apples and candy floss are when you hit the seaside in the UK.

Apparently all the old buses are now going to be replaced, not because they have finally stopped working after seventy years, but because Malta joined the European Union on Saturday, May 1 2004 (BTW my 40th birthday) and no doubt will suddenly find it has laws against buses with holes in them.

So lets begin with Regal's Imqaret biscuit. The pack straight away mentions that they are 'Baked not Fried', which for any one used to the local pastries could be important. Looking like a long skinny fig roll the Imqaret feels familiar however the taste is most definitely North African influenced with date, orange and honey. I think most people will find these quite a tricky biscuit to get to grips with and again its one of those ones that works well with a gentle heating say in a microwave, as it helps release the exotic aromas, and emulates the freshly cooked street bought Imqaret. With only 12% fat and salt free you can experiment on these quite happily.

Rimus Riley, who now sell their biscuits under the Regal Brand name, is a family owned and run company. It has been producing biscuits and snacks since 1975 mainly for the local Maltese market, and has had some dealings with the export market, but not in a consistent manner. It employs over 60 people and is currently expanding its export business following a great deal of interest in its products.

Lets turn now to their Muesli Digestive. Now Muesli can be tricky old stuff and eating some of the more rustic versions can be like devouring a lightly shredded wickerwork chair. I always remember the wholefood shop in town when I was a student selling big sacks of 'community muesli' which looked like the sort of stuff they sweep up in a sawmill, presumably the community sawmill. There would always be a strategically placed single dried apricot pressed up against the side of the pillow sized bag to catch your eye. It would also serve to detract you from the chair leg bits of old raffia matting and other assorted kindling that was in there. My skinny Czech house mate used to take roughly two to three hours to eat a bowl of the stuff, during which he would complain about a possible reoccurring jaw dislocation injury. We had to ban Muesli when it was clear our plumbing wasn't designed to take the consequences.

So I expected a fairly rustic biscuit and wasn't too disappointed, still I didn't find anything woody so they must be using a domestic grade of muesli rather than the wattle and daub grade of my student memories. The biscuits were quite hard a brittle, with almost a vanilla note to their flavour. Not really like a conventional digestive, but certainly good fun to munch, down with a mug of tea.

Finally we tried the Fig Rolls. Like the Imqaret they were cut before baking. The crust was no shrinking violet, but a good amount of fig helped make this a well balanced biscuit. I thought the fig paste tasted very authentic, possibly because the Maltese are very comfortable with the fig. However, for some, the graphic representation of a fig on the pack might be too vivid if they don't want to make that association (a bit like people who only eat meat from animals that aren't cute).

Regal sent us some other biscuits to try including Yoghurt Creams, Jaffa Rounds and Apple Strudel Rolls. Of these the Yogurt Creams were very interesting definitely tasting of yoghurt, and the Apple Strudels were very much like the fig rolls only filled with some spiced apple. The jaffa rounds were probably the least impressive, but all in all we enjoyed much of what was on offer here so that bodes well for Mediterranean biscuit munching.

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Thursday 15 Apr 2004

A quick dash to New Zealand this week to take a look at the Afghan biscuit. Yet again Griffins are the people behind this biscuit, which is based on the classic homemade Afghans of NZ and Australia. There is always huge rivalry between the Kiwi's and the Ausies when it comes to who invented stuff from that part of the world. The votes would seem to suggest that NZ can lay claim to the Afghan.

Why on earth it is called an Afghan is anybodies guess, apart from looking a bit craggy like the mainly mountainous Afghanistan I don't see any real connection. Then again it my be connected to the dog breed, which is even more tenuous. Anybody with an afghan hound where I grew up had to call them 'Suki'. Similarly if you had a labrador you had to call it 'Sheba' and feed it up till it could barely walk.

Home made Afghan's are a mixture of cornflakes, cocoa powder, sugar and butter, which is baked and then topped with chocolate icing and walnuts. The Griffins Afghans didn't have walnuts and they didn't have corn flakes either. They did however have wheat flakes which gave a bit of bite to the biscuit and slightly gravely quality. The biscuit has some butter in it and tastes less manufactured due to it.

If I'm honest then I'm a little dissapointed for the first time with a Griffins biscuit. They are nice enough, but I think I was hoping for something as rustic tasting as the biscuits rustic outline. I think we will have to have a go at making some ourselves, in the splendid new NCOTAASD HQ oven.

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Tuesday 30 Mar 2004

When Nestlé stopped foil wrapping their KitKat and slipped them into plastic sachets instead it was a bit of a disaster. It was said that it was done so that we could enjoy our KitKats even fresher, but I think you would find it hard to find a gone off KitKat. It was obviously a cheaper and more efficient way of packing the product. The foil was integral to what KitKats were all about, and taking it away was like taking the Pot away from a Pot Noodle. We liked how we could run our thumb nails down the groove between the fingers. We liked how we could run our finger tips over the top to reveal the cursive KitKat logo cut in the chocolate. We even liked how we could roll it up in to little foil balls and bat them around with our fingers, or make little sculptures. So when I decided to take a look at a pack of 2 finger KitKats, I was very amused to find inside the large outer wrapper some foil wrapped KitKats.

According to the press, KitKats have been having a bit of a hard time recently. Last year their sales dropped by 9%, which if you consider it's the market leader with sales that were in excess of 100 million pounds, 9% is a lot of chocolate. Of course the more bizarre plans to revitalise the brand have grabbed the attention of the media. Lemon cheesecake flavours have worked well in Germany and Japan and there has even been mention of liquorice and even curry flavoured versions. Now it's probably fine to try stuff like this in markets where the product doesn't have a particularly long history, but we've been enjoying sensible KitKats since 1935.

There is some dodgy story about why the KitKat got its name, but its a bit dud so I'll spare you the details. If you're curious you can look it up on their website, but don't say I didn't warn you.

As for the KitKat, well very obviously it's a classic British brand which Nestlé acquired when they took over Rowntree, and to be fair they have built into a global brand. They are made in the UK in York, and Nestlé has started making them in several sites in Europe, not just to grow the brand but because of exchange rates.

If you are some kind of space alien visitor from another world then you'll need me to describe a KitKat to you, everybody else has been eating them for as long as they can remember. Right, they are thin wafer fingers that are sandwiched together with something brownish, but I don't think it's chocolate. This doesn't matter as they are entirely coated in chocolate, lots of it. Hence most people consider them to be a chocolate bar. Oh and for some completely unfathomable reason they have yeast in them!

So why have we decided to start talking about the KitKat, which by the way 38% of you consider to be a biscuit? There are a few things that make me think that maybe the marketing people who steward the brand haven't completely lost the plot. Well putting aside the KitKat chunky which was a splendidly successful thing, but is now going into decline as we are all bored with it. Now there is the Kube, which according to the adverts you just eat lots of it slowly, which is probably the best advice to those hoping to put on weight. So just before they roll out the Masala flavour KitKats lets take a close look at the two finger jobs.

Well the logo is still on top, but it's a new one, and its been shoved to one end. As you know, generally we fear change, but in a gesture of goodwill, and given that all the flowers are blooming and the birds are singing I'll think we'll let that go. What is new are some random messages on the top to do with 'Taking a Break'. This 'leverages' the brass rubbing foil fondness we have, and has to be a good thing. I also always enjoy something that is a bit random but mass produced, as they seem contradictory. Additionally, the recent nationwide radio led 'Take a break' Friday which encourages us all to sit down and eat KitKats is also enjoyable. As this is a radio thing there is some concentration on descriptions of favourite eating techniques which works well for radio. Again top marks here, as this is what we all really care about, and it celebrates this much loved product. Also having just scoffed down the review pack with the younger members of staff I am reminded that there really isn't anything that hits the same exact spot as a KitKat, and for that alone it deserves to be around for another seventy years.

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