TRIED & TESTED: SAUCY SELECTION

Do ready-made tomato sauces, fresh from the jar, bring out the Italian in your pasta? Our panel samples seven
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The Independent Culture
WHY are ready-made pasta sauces such a success? Dashing together a simple blend of tomatoes, onion, garlic and seasoning isn't exactly a culinary feat (even for a modest home cook), yet we in Britain prefer to buy the stuff in jars - and in enormous quantities. Each year, 10 million households in Britain consume 280 million plates of pasta - and pre-prepared sauces such as Ragu and Dolmio are the accompaniment most likely to go on them. The major supermarkets now make own-label versions to capitalise on the escalating trend.

We set out to find the product that most closely resembled an Italian mama's home-made pasta sauce, with that elusive combination of fresh tomato and a fine balance of herbs and spices. The overall quality of the sauces was disappointing. Most were too sweet, too bland or simply didn't taste of tomato. To be fair, though, many are meant to be used with meat for a Bolognese sauce - not on their own. This was taken into consideration in our marking.

THE PANEL

Antonio Carluccio, restaurateur and author; Michael Bateman, Independent on Sunday food writer; Susan Beckett, tax inspector; Veen Rama, civil servant; Pauline Nicol, housewife and mother; and Stefan Stern, spokesperson for the Industrial Society. The blind tasting was held at The Neal Street Restaurant, 28a Neal Street, Covent Garden, London WC2.

THE TEST

Each sauce was judged on whether it had a fresh tomato flavour, a pleasant aroma, and a delicate balance of herbs and spices. It was important that no single ingredient overwhelmed the palate. While focusing mainly on these criteria, our testers heaped additional comments as liberally as the spaghetti. They were in no doubt about which was the best - Peperonchino al Pomodoro, the gourmet product marketed by our tester Antonio Carluccio. Though included in the test, this sauce was not marked competitively against the others because it is a rather different kind of product - much more expensive than the mass-produced jars, more difficult to find, but ideal for that occasion when you want to pass off a perfect sauce as your own!

*RAGU

pounds 1.29 for 440g

Ragu is reputedly the world's number one brand of pasta sauce and enjoys a huge share of the British market. The Ragu range is said to be based on the authentic Italian recipes of Giovanni and Assunta Cantisano, who established the brand in 1937; none the less, our panel found it disappointing. Pauline Nicol said: "It looked like tinned soup, smelt like tomato puree and tasted like ketchup". Susan Beckett felt it "needed a bag of chips to do it justice". Stefan Stern appreciated the real tomato pieces it contained, but disliked its bland flavour and the hint of stale herbs. Michael Bateman thought this wasn't a problem, because lots of other flavours had been added to give it life.

*TESCO

82p for 300g; pounds 1.09 for 455g

The general feeling about this sauce was that it didn't taste of tomatoes at all. It was more of an anonymous red gloop which only needed spaghetti hoops to complete the canned effect. The texture was described as unpleasantly gluey and Antonio Carluccio criticised its "strong smell of dried herbs". It was also thought to be too sweet, with an acidic aftertaste. This could, of course, have been because we were tasting it without meat. The overwhelming consensus was that this sauce was too thin and emulsified to come anywhere near a home-made version.

SAINSBURY'S PREMIUM PASTA SAUCE

99p for 550g

Stefan Stern was sufficiently moved by this sauce to spit venom (being too polite to spit out the sauce itself). "It has absolutely no flavour, is completely insubstantial and should be prosecuted under the trade descriptions' act," he thundered. Susan Beckett found the texture vile: "it disintegrated in my mouth." Everyone judged this one a "taste disaster area", the very worst of the lot. Sainsbury's have only recently introduced this sauce into their range and our whole panel was surprised by its poor quality.

****ST MICHAEL ITALIAN-STYLE PASTA SAUCE

pounds 1.29 for 500g; 89p for 300g

Marks & Sparks can always be relied on to produce food that pleases the palate of the most discerning foodie, and this sauce was well received by the panel. Susan Beckett and Michael Bateman both noted the "nice, juicy, fresh texture of real tomatoes", but, as with nearly all the sauces, they found it a bit too sweet. According to Stefan Stern, "the colour and consistency are just right", while Veen Rama approved of "the clusters of fresh-looking tomato pieces". Antonio Carluccio commented: "I like the appearance of this sauce, but they've overdone the herbs a bit." Both Pauline Nicol and Veen Rama considered the oregano "a little overpowering" for their tastes, but these were trifling quibbles in a sauce that was universally voted the best.

***LOYD GROSSMAN

pounds 1.49 for 350g

Over this product our panel was divided - as, indeed, was the sauce itself. The oil hovered over the tomato like a rainbow film, giving the whole a resemblance to tomato curry. This, apparently, is because it does not use stabilisers. It has a rich colour and, the panel felt, a "very decent" aroma. Loyd Grossman has introduced this range into most high- street supermarkets and is targeting it at "food lovers who are not prepared to compromise on quality". His face beams out from the front of every jar (a bit off-putting, but this didn't affect the marking!). On the whole, this sauce was well received. Our two food experts were a little critical; Michael Bateman liked the sensation of cooked tomato but disliked the "garlicky, oily, salty flavour". Antonio Carluccio conceded that it had "a little more life than some of the others", but felt the balance of herbs and spices wasn't quite right.

**DOLMIO PRIMA

pounds 1.59 for 400g

Prima is not as widely available as other sauces in the Dolmio range, but it is their premium product, using the best ingredients and so a little more expensive than Dolmio Original.

Antonio Carluccio was overwhelmed by the prominence of garlic, which he felt gave the sauce an unnatural flavour, while Pauline Nicol commented: "It tastes like garlic paste thickened with cornflour." Most of the panel disliked the flavour of this sauce, which they considered "manufactured", but they enjoyed the aroma. The smell, however, was deceptive: the herbs did not taste nearly as strong as they smelt and the product left an unpleasant aftertaste. This could have been because the sauce is primarily designed to be used with meat and the fat of the meat would counteract the acidity in the sauce.

CARLUCCIO'S PEPERONCHINO AL POMODORO

pounds 2.95 for 280g; sampled for interest but not judged competitively against the rest

Panellist Antonio Carluccio's own sauce was the most expensive, and could not be compared like for like with the others. For that special meal, however, it was highly recommended by all. Pauline Nicol rated it "streets ahead of the rest". The others agreed, but Susan Beckett did find the presence of tomato skins "a little off-putting" - though she would happily have dipped her way through the whole jar with huge chunks of fresh foccacia if the others had not intervened. Veen Rama commented on the "pleasant consistency and evidence of fresh tomato" and was very surprised it came from a jar. Stefan Stern, who had been very disappointed with all the other offerings, commented: "It looks like tomato, smells like tomato and tastes overwhelmingly of tomato!"

STOCKISTS

Ragu, Dolmio Prima and Loyd Grossman pasta sauces can all be purchased at major high-street supermarkets. Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Sainsbury's own brands are available at their branches nationwide. Antonio Carluccio's Peperonchino al Pomodoro sauce can be bought at Carluccio's, Neal Street, Covent Garden, London WC2, and in good delicatessens throughout the country (telephone 0171-240 1487 for local stockists).

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