Tried & tested: THE WHITE SLICE

The great British sliced loaf is still the ultimate convenience food, but do we really like it? Our panel gives it a grilling xxxx
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With the range of breads to be found in today's bakeries, you might be forgiven for shunting plain old medium-sliced white off the weekly shopping list. Loaves boasting poppy seeds, sundried tomatoes, walnuts and onions have become the best thing since sliced bread. Once a staple of the British diet, sliced bread is now more likely to be found on the birdtable than in the dining-room. But manufacturers have come up with other selling points for the humble loaf. Tesco, for example, has cashed in on fast-paced life with a new "stay fresh" bread which, it claims, lasts up to seven days - ideal for people with little time to shop. So can the sliced loaf rise to the challenge of the bread revolution - or does it have a limited shelf-life?


Three members of our panel were experienced bread bakers: Independent on Sunday food writer Michael Bateman, who confessed he can't abide most sliced bread; "amateur caterer" Martha Smart, who is researching a book on honey; and David Lewis, head chef at the Mamma Amalfi restaurant in Ealing, which kindly hosted our tasting. Barrister Alex Deal, a fan of Philadelphia cheese and toast when not eating out, joined them.


Helen Grinyer, food development manager at sandwich chain Pret a Manger, recommends the "sponge test": if the bread doesn't spring back when you squeeze it, it has too much air. She looks for an even spread of holes, just a touch of salt and some crispness on the crust. The panel, using these guidelines, conducted a blind test on both white and wholemeal medium- sliced bread; members also tested freshness by comparing new samples with loaves that were three days old.


rrp 59p for 800g

Despite brandishing a name to be reckoned with, this "yeasty" stalwart was voted "a damp sponge" by Michael Bateman - and nobody else really rated it either. "It gives an illusion of texture, but it's phoney," said Michael. Alex Deal thought it looked "like a heat insulator, with a crust like chewy old leather boots". Martha Smart suggested giving it to the birds. "It's easy to butter, but it tastes like cardboard." Would she use it? "No, absolutely not."


55p for 800g

This was judged an excellent all-rounder by chef David Lewis. "It smells fresh and wholesome, with a very even, firm and springy texture. I like the resistance in the crust. It would suit fresh tomatoes," he commented. The rest of the panel also gave the thumbs up. "I'd be happy to eat this in sandwiches; perhaps smoked salmon pate with a bit of lemon juice," suggested Martha Smart. Michael Bateman found it "moist and tasty, with flavour in the crust". Even Alex Deal, not a fan of wholemeal, was swayed: "A good price for a good bread."


rrp 52p for 800g

The panel was divided; Alex Deal pronounced it his favourite ("good old-fashioned sandwich bread - yum yum"), but Michael Bateman found it "sticky and cloying in the mouth". He conceded: "It's technically very skilful and has a tight texture. It might be okay for toast." The panel found it lacked springiness, but had a good doughy, moist texture. Martha Smart reported: "It's easy to butter, it has a solid consistency, and the crust breaks well."


42p for 800g

"Raw, yeasty, dull and damp," said Michael Bateman of this "phoney textured" Sainsbury's white loaf. Other panel members were more outspoken in their loathing of it. "Absolutely revolting," said Alex Deal. "It's limp, with a cardboard crust. It spreads well, but I wouldn't waste the spread. Toasting must be able to do something for it - but I don't know what." David Lewis agreed that the bread was actually better toasted, adding: "It's too sweet and chewy for sandwiches. It wouldn't be my choice." Martha Smart was more charitable about the product: "It's quite clingy, but it does have plenty of flavour."


49p for 800g

Launched in September, this white sliced bread comes foil-wrapped in its own "state of the art re-sealable bag". But the panel found the contents were hardly worth saving for seven days. "What an unpleasant smell - yeuch," complained Alex Deal, who thought the best place for it was the rubbish bin. Martha Smart reported: "The crust's the best part, but that's not saying much. It's fine if you're the type who likes processed cheese or ham sandwiches." "It's cosmetically attractive and looks like cake crumb, but it has a yeasty, raw, rather sweet taste," said Michael Bateman.


rrp 59p for 800g

This wholemeal loaf was judged solid and reasonable, if bland. "It's floppy, dull and slightly bitter," said an unimpressed Michael Bateman. The panel deemed it best fit for toast, dripping with butter. "Marmite would be ideal, because the bread isn't that salty and it's rather dry," said Martha Smart. Alex Deal agreed, and reported that it kept its freshness well.


42p for 800g

Three members of the panel voted this bread "only fit for the birdtable". The fourth, Michael Bateman, voted it his second-worst. "It's anonymous," he said. "Superficially well-made, but tasteless pap." Martha Smart disliked its "greyish" colour, and added: "It's very boring and I wouldn't buy it." The bread improved when buttered, but was still uninspiring, according to David Lewis. "You get greasy pockets of butter and you'd need a strong filling like Bovril," he said. Was it better or worse after three days? "More yeasty," said Martha. "I didn't dare risk it - sorry," said Alex Deal.


59p for 400g

Eating this loaf was like "biting into clean air", according to Alex Deal. He found that it tore easily when spreading butter, and objected to the price and lack of freshness. Michael Bateman liked its "uneven, attractive texture, lovely smell and matured dough", while Martha Smart recommended brie as a suitable filling, to go with the "doughy smell". But she noted: "It gets dry after a short time out of the pack."


rrp 69p for 800g

Most of the panel members loved this "thick and fluffy" bread and it was voted the favourite. The higher price was entirely justified, according to Alex Deal. "This is the best white bread," he enthused. "It stayed fresh and had a good crisp crust." Martha Smart found it "very soft, with lots of large holes" but thought the taste "a bit bland". Michael Bateman awarded it his highest mark (six and a half out of ten); when all was revealed, he was pleased to find he'd voted for his teenage daughter's favourite. "It's light and fluffy with a nice mature smell and an interesting floury crust," he said.


55p for 800g

Like its wholemeal counterpart, this was judged a good all-rounder, although panellists were unimpressed by its taste. "Good aroma and a nice shining crust. Not my style, but well made," reported Michael Bateman. Alex Deal found it difficult to spread with butter. "It's nothing to write home about, but it was remarkably fresh after three days," he said. Martha Smart recommended a wet filling: "It's very dry. You'd need to use tomatoes or cucumber. It gets better with age."


59p for 800g

All tasters liked the "good bready smell" of this one. "It looked promising, with an open texture and excellent consistency," said Martha Smart, who voted this her favourite. "I'd buy this to keep around for toast," she said. David Lewis recommended a moist filling - seafood sandwiches or marmalade on toast - but found the crust "a touch chewy". Alex Deal was also pleased: "It's easy to butter; no crumbs."


rrp 59p for 800g

This contender fell down on freshness and general appeal. "It lost any good qualities it had after three days," said Alex Deal. Michael Bateman felt it merited no praise whatsoever. "It looks perfect, but it's lifeless. This is pap." Martha Smart found it too bland, but liked its texture. "Fine for tomato sandwiches," she said.


Mighty White, Hovis, Sunblest, Allinson, Kings-mill Top Grade and Kingsmill Gold are available from most major supermarkets. For nearest own-brand stockists: Safeway, tel: 01622 712547; Sainsbury's, tel: 0171 695 6000; Tesco, tel: 0800 505555; Asda, tel 0500 100055; Marks & Spencer, tel: 0171 935 4422. To book a table at Mamma Amalfi, call 0181 840 5888. !