A hi-tech answer to Mrs Beeton or a totally flawed concept? Our panel goes on line in the kitchen
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The Independent Culture
Opening a much-consulted volume of Delia Smith or Elizabeth David, pages stuck together with egg, bearing the traces of many sessions in the kitchen, might be a pleasure, but it is hardly a hi-tech way to tackle your next dinner party. As one in five households in Britain is equipped with a home computer, the dash to dominate the home software market has started. CD-ROMs, the books of the computer world, are available on a bewildering array of subjects - cookery is one of the most popular.

Old-fashioned books may be in no danger yet - one of our testers, Matthew Sweet, was interested to know whether anyone uses such databases regularly. "The whole principle seems flawed," he said. "You have to print everything out to use it in the kitchen (unless you don't care about a floury keyboard), then you've got yourself a loose-leaf book."

Our panel set out to discover if cookery CD-ROMs are worth all the effort they require, and indeed whether they offer anything that trusty old Mrs Beeton doesn't.


Michael Bateman, Independent on Sunday cookery writer, who was perturbed by the very idea of a cookery book which requires you to use a computer ("Do you run backwards and forwards from the kitchen?"); Stephen Purvis, a computer analyst/programmer; and Matthew Sweet and Nicola Smyth who have recently set up home together.


The panellists, who ranged from the computer-illiterate Michael Bateman to the totally fluent Stephen Purvis, tried out each of the CD-ROMs, evaluating everything from how easy they were to master and navigate round, to the quality of information and value for money each one offered.

The panel also judged the visuals, on which there was some consensus. Matthew Sweet spoke for the panel: "Somehow, as you look at the screen everything on it gets gradually more and more unappetising. In the end, there were very few dishes that any of us felt inspired to try."


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"This seemed monstrously over-complex," said Matthew Sweet. "I found it rather a frustrating experience just getting around this disc." Nicola Smyth, who judged this her least favourite product, put it graphically: "The icon (an unrealistic prawn skewered between two chopsticks) seemed a fairly accurate representation of how it feels to be a user of this program - how does it work?

"It took 10 minutes to get started, three minutes to load a 'cookbook' - very soon, just opening one in my kitchen seemed a tempting alternative. Not good for the hungry, or technophobic."

Stephen Purvis agreed, "Comprehensive facilities - but perhaps somewhat over-complicated. The search/cross-referencing tool is difficult to master." However, he liked the option of adding your own recipes, and suggested this disc may be aimed more at the catering market than home use.


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Stephen Purvis made this his second choice, despite "irritating music - unless you are a Brahms fan." He judged this and Julia Child's Home Cooking "the only true multi-media products in the test. They are aimed at the entertainment (or 'edutainment') market," he said, "and are therefore much more fun to use." However, on this one he found the cross-referencing lacking and some backgrounds made the text difficult to read.

Michael Bateman said of Vegetarian Delights: "Naff. Poor visuals. Awful music. Recipes I'd hate to cook. The music on Vegetarian Delights makes you sick, as does the anaemic graphic design." He also held this disc up as an example of the CD-ROM suffering from an excess of information. "Masses of choices equals masses of muddle," he said.

"CD-ROMs seem to offer an encyclopaedic look at the subject, telling you 99 per cent of what you don't want to know. Maybe if they attempted less they could achieve more. Having everything chucked at you - the kitchen sink, and with it the full calorific and nutritional tables - is deadening. Who on earth are they intended for? Surely not for cooks. And won't non- cooks be bored silly? I can't imagine anyone going back to use them repeatedly. At least you can return to a Floyd or Rick Stein video with a sense of pleasurable anticipation."


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The focus of interest on this CD-ROM was Julia Child's voice, which was variously described as "an impersonation by Edna Everage" (Michael Bateman), "like she's been at the cooking sherry" (Matthew Sweet) and "somewhere between Lady Bracknell and Ginger Rogers" (Nicola Smyth).

It was, nonetheless, the clear favourite among the testers. Matthew Sweet described it as "easily the most user-friendly and visually seductive; the CD runs smoothly, is easy to navigate, and is easily the least clunky of those tested. However," he continued, "with an emphasis on the personalities and careers of its contributing chefs as much as on the recipes, it has the feel of interactive daytime television."

Nicola Smyth agreed that the food looked relatively appetising, but found the chefs' tips a little simple-minded. "Julia offered helpful insights such as 'eggs come in different sizes and colours, but don't let that confuse you'." And despite judging this disc visually the most successful, she suggested "watching an old episode of Farmhouse Kitchen from behind a mesh screen would probably simulate the 'hi-tech' effects".

Although it scored the highest, all the testers complained that it was not aimed at the British market. Michael Bateman saw this as one of the main barriers to all of the CD-ROMs. "At this stage, existing cookery CD-ROMs won't give British viewers much pleasure, being entirely designed for US viewers. American cookery books don't go down well in the UK; different measures, different terminology, different ingredients, different expectations, different style."


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"This is to cookery CD-ROMs what PacMan is to arcade games. The computers in Blake's Seven were more sophisticated," said Matthew Sweet. Stephen Purvis agreed, "Quite easy to use, but not really a multi-media product." However, he enjoyed the "what can I cook with x, y, z in my fridge" option - "something most people can relate to."

Nicola Smyth couldn't really see any advantage over a good cookery book, or a series of Delia Smith on video. "Dull, unimaginative and time-consuming," she concluded.


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"This is a CD where their American origin poses a distinct handicap for the British user," said Matthew Sweet. "Its recipes are set in cups and all seem to include chocolate. Some are just weird: microwaved Camembert confetti? I was culture-shocked!"

Michael Bateman was vehement, "So all-American, it offers no interest at all to the modern Brit," he declared.

Nicola Smyth commented on how slow this disc was. "By the time it found your recipe, you could have opened a can of beans. Although there are visuals, none of the recipes I picked had a picture. Only an obsessive would benefit from the detailed nutritional information. I got bored and ate some chocolate biscuits."

Matthew Sweet agreed. "This was easily the slowest disc of the lot. Its visuals were distinctly average but it seemed to take ages to access the information."

"It's lovely seeing all these chefs chopping onions and turning out fruitcakes - its that sort of demonstration that's the obvious strength of the CD- ROM. But they make pretty user-unfriendly cookery-books," Matthew Sweet summed up.


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