February 3, 2012 9:54 pm

The taste test: flavoured popcorn

The panel is dazzled by exotic curry and caramel macchiato flavours, as well as a plain, air-popped version

One of the abiding preoccupations of the food industry has been to try to sell us something for nothing – usually air or water at imaginative prices. Margaret Thatcher’s first job as a graduate scientist was a celebrated project investigating how to whip more air into commercial ice cream. Aero and Crunchie bars are equally ingenious. The ice lolly – frozen, flavoured water – is now outdone by the iceberg lettuce, a triumph for farming. It’s H2O with virtually no substance at all. All of these are trumped, however, by popcorn, where the packet can seem heavier than the contents. It’s as light as air because it mostly is air. The confection is only available to us thanks to the Native Americans who discovered maize had such a tough skin that, when heated to a high temperature, it acted as a sort of pressure cooker on the kernel’s internal starches, with gratifyingly explosive consequences.

We poor Brits have associated popcorn almost exclusively with the cinema. Back in the US they have been enjoying “gourmet” popcorn with a variety of enterprising flavours much more widely. And now this exotically flavoured air, captured in inflated corn, is taking off here. We tried 22 pneumatic varieties from supermarkets, coffee-shop chains and upmarket takeaways. The panel welcomed a new recruit who was so enthused by the challenge that he arrived at the door with a box of his own. He is one of Britain’s most talented opera singers and operates under the moniker of the Divine Larynx (DLX). Joining him were the Carnivorous Undergraduate (CU), the Discerning Litigator (DL) and the Gluttonous Pig (GP).

We had two general conclusions from our blind tasting. First, that the microwave-your-own product from supermarkets produces very bland popcorn and is not worth the effort. Second, there were many interesting flavours, but the cheesy ones were almost always a mistake. Eat’s Cheese and Jalapeno Popcorn was in the bottom two: “not my bag at all” (DLX); “smelly feet” (DL).

Its cheese flavouring included dextrose, whey powder, vegetarian cheese powder, onion powder and yeast extract powder – a bit of a witch’s brew. We didn’t much like Joe&Seph’s Goats Cheese & Black Pepper either. Hats off to them, it really did taste of chèvre, but we didn’t really want that on our popcorn: “sour tinge” (CU); “sickly idea”(DL). But this company is a really enterprising one with some very clever flavours and helpful self-sealing packets. It also provided one of our winners ...

So, in third place, came Joe&Seph’s Caramel Macchiato & Whisky (the booze being guaranteed at a satisfactory 6 per cent on the ingredients list): “creamy, indulgent, emollient” (GP); “biscuity caramel – classy” (DLX); “hint of coffee – deliciously Irish” (DL). Second was the blessed Saint Heston with another of his gastronomic miracles for Waitrose, Heston’s Curry Spiced Popcorn: “crusty, complex, with good curry taste” (CU); “cumin/chilli, sweet/savoury ... nice idea” (GP); “strangely interesting” (DLX).

To demonstrate that the panel was not merely dazzled by exotica, the winner was a plain popcorn with a name that pleased the Divine Larynx when it was revealed. Diva Popcorn’s Rock Salt flavour was air-popped not fried, as its packet boasted: “authentic ‘baked’ taste” (GP); “perfect texture and salt” (DLX); “fresh flavour and artisan look” (DL); “that pops my corn, baby” (CU).

As a member of Bafta, I’m in the middle of watching the latest crop of movie DVDs in order to vote in the upcoming awards. Afterwards I retired to the telly room, with the three recommended snacks in hand, to view Coriolanus. I feared a thesp-fest. But it was actually rather good – and with popcorn, excellent.

ftweekendmagazine@ft.com

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A bag of Diva Popcorn

The winners

1 Diva Popcorn, Rock Salt flavour

(21g, from 79p; see www.divapopcorn.com for stockists)

2 Waitrose Heston Curry Spiced Popcorn

(125g bag, £1.59; www.waitrose.com)

3 Joe&Seph’s Caramel Macchiato & Whisky Popcorn

(80g bag, £2.99; www.joeandsephs.co.uk)

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