TRIED & TESTED / The Italian connection: A cappuccino from a packet? our panel goes in search of instant gratification

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The Independent Culture
Gondolas, Roman antiquities and pavement cafes adorn the packaging of instant cappuccino drinks. But while manufacturers play up the taste of Italy, can an instant drink mimic the real thing? A cappuccino means espresso coffee with hot, frothed milk. The packet version is a mixture of instant coffee, powdered milk and, among other things, ingredients to make the drink froth. The Cafe Society, which hopes to do for coffee what the Campaign for Real Ale did for beer, says these drinks are imposters. But while purists may sneer, the drinks have acquired a certain following since their launch two years ago. We invited a panel of coffee drinkers to the Bar Italia in Soho to try some of them out. They also sipped an instant espresso drink . . . and, finally, the real thing.

THE PANEL

Tony Wild, coffee columnist, Taste magazine; Antonio Polledri, owner, Bar Italia; Michael Bateman, food editor, Independent on Sunday; Radha Burgess, shop assistant; Josh van Gelder, photographer.

THE TEST

The panel was asked to give the cappuccino drinks marks out of five on frothiness, bitterness, sweetness, taste, aroma, body, richness, how much they were like a real cappuccino and how much the panellists liked the drink. None got high enough marks to be awarded a star rating. The panellists did not know which brands or varieties they were drinking. They rated the espresso drink on similar criteria, apart from frothiness, of course.

MAXWELL HOUSE ORIGINAL WITH SUCHARD CHOCOLATEFLAKES

pounds 2.49 for 15 sachets, 99p for 5

Very unpopular; scored extremely badly on everything.

'This was just like an instant coffee. I really don't know how it could be called a cappuccino. Very poor]' said Antonio Polledri. The other testers were equally critical. 'Tinned milk or milk powder taste - that slightly cooked flavour. Quality of milk flavour completely destroyed it,' commented Michael Bateman. 'No body, no coffee taste. What have I done to deserve this?' pleaded Tony Wild.

MAXWELL HOUSE VANILLA FLAVOUR WITH SUCHARD CHOCOLATE FLAKES

pounds 1.09 for 5 sachets

One of the least unpopular - but nothing like a real cappuccino.

'Hold on, is this coffee or toffee?' asked Josh van Gelder. 'As a hot sweet drink, this isn't too bad. It should be on the Ovaltine or Horlicks shelf, though - cappuccino it isn't' Tony Wild and Michael Bateman had similar views.

SAINSBURY

pounds 1.59 for 10 sachets, (special offer price pounds 1.49 until 2 January 1994)

One of the least disliked; those with a sweet tooth might like it.

This drink, which was very sweet, was not as roundly condemned as the others. Some panellists even had a few good words for it.

'Warm, cosy, unthreatening coffee. Quite a comfortable brew,' commented Radha Burgess. Tony Wild, though, found nothing whatsoever to praise in it: 'Horribly oversweetened, zero coffee flavour, a kind of weird chicory/chocolate aroma and a few misguided brown blobs floating around like dead flies.'

'A children's drink. Camp coffee, with sweetener,' was the opinion of Michael Bateman.

SAINSBURY

pounds 1.59 for 10 sachets (special offer price pounds 1.49 until 2 January 1994)

Slated by everyone.

Sainsbury's are introducing a new recipe for this drink in the new year - a wise decision, judging by our panel's reaction. 'A blessed relief to spit it out,' said Tony Wild. The panellists used words such as 'salty', 'chemical' or 'acrid' to describe it. 'Is this brewed with sea water?' asked Josh van Gelder. 'Really very offensive. Coffee? I think not,' he added.

NESCAFE ORIGINAL

pounds 1.79 for 10 sachets

Insipid; not as bad as some.

'Delicious creamy froth and a rich smooth taste' - according to the packet. But our testers thought otherwise. Radha Burgess asked: 'Has someone left a few granules of decaffeinated coffee in a bucket of water? Very watery, ineffectual and spineless.' Antonio Polledri thought it was 'one of the better ones', but criticised the lack of froth.

NESCAFE UNSWEETENED

pounds 1.79 for 10 sachets

Not as disliked as some others.

This drink's ratings were only averagely awful. Antonio Polledri even found something to praise: 'A nicer, fuller, creamy froth, and a coffee taste and smell. Hooray]' But Michael Bateman, while admitting that it did have coffee taste, hated it: 'Spittable - filthy powdered milk.'

TESCO

pounds 1.59 for 10 sachets

The dregs; rated extremely poorly on all criteria.

Some testers noticed an unpleasant aftertaste with this drink, one of the most unpopular. Tony Wild, for example, said: 'Milk has a flabby 'off' flavour and an aftertaste like UHT. No discernible aroma, which is probably just as well.' Radha Burgess commented: 'It would take a spectacularly punchy, fulsome, aromatic and deliciously smooth coffee to rise above the mire of pallid bile we have been drinking. Unfortunately, this one is as bad as the rest - tedious, tasteless and turgid.'

TESCO UNSWEETENED

pounds 1.59 for 10 sachets

One of the less disliked, little flavour.

The overwhelming impression: blandness. 'Extremely insipid, like instant coffee from a vending machine with half- hearted froth. Leaves a nasty dry taste in the mouth,' said Josh van Gelder. 'Terrible old ditchwater,' was Radha Burgess's verdict, while Tony Wild dubbed it 'ersatz'.

MARKS & SPENCER WITH MILK CHOCOLATE FLAKES

pounds 1.69 for 10 sachets

One of the best of a very bad bunch.

'Reasonable' and 'passable' were words used to describe this drink by two testers: praise indeed from our panel. But others found it, despite the fact that it was one of the least badly rated, completely unpalatable.

'A texture that sticks to the roof of your mouth, a chemical taste and bitter, dry aftertaste. Recommended only as a form of self-induced punishment or revenge,' said Josh van Gelder.

LAVAZZA

pounds 1.99 far 10 sachets

Fails to capture the magic of Italy.

Lavazza claims that this is the only instant cappuccino made in Italy (although the company don't actually sell it there), but it still got low ratings. The verdict of the Italian on our panel was not favourable: 'Again this shouldn't be called a cappuccino. No froth whatsoever, and only a slight coffee taste.' Josh van Gelder almost praised it, though: 'Given more froth and more flavour, this might pass as coffee. Could do worse.'

NESCAFE ESPRESSO

pounds 1.89 for 25 sachets

A stronger version of instant coffee.

The panel didn't dislike this as much but they weren't enthusiastic either. 'Very little resemblance to the smooth, bitter hit of a real espresso,' said Josh van Gelder. Tony Wild thought it 'virtually indistinguishable from an ordinary instant coffee. The 'strength' comes from the dosage.' It's much dearer than ordinary instant coffee - the equivalent of pounds 4.20 for a standard 100g jar.

THE REAL THING

Antonio Polledri provided us with a cup each, made in his Gaggia machine, for comparison. No attempt was made to disguise which was the real cappuccino - the difference was too obvious.

'A real cappuccino, such a relief, creamy in the right places, strong and pungent,' said Josh van Gelder. Radha Burgess was ecstatic: 'Fabulous, rich, heaven-kissed and angel dreamy. An absolute holiday after the torture we have been through. Perfect.'

(Photograph omitted)

Next Week: Waterproof jackets

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