I am old enough to recall the Sainsbury’s shops of the late 1950s, before the supermarket model from the US invaded. Two long wooden counters down either side, bustling female assistants with their hair tied up in white muslin and the deliciously overpowering smell of an old-fashioned grocer. When the first fruit-flavoured yoghurts appeared in this innocent world, sold in small glass jars, they seemed impossibly sophisticated and we begged for them. They were so much more exciting than rice pudding or banana custard.
Today, the bewildering choice of flavours is matched by equally confusing health claims (organic, probiotic etc) that probably do not add up to a hill of beans. The FT Weekend politburo wanted a shriving, low-fat tasting for the new year. Most of the better flavours (rhubarb, gooseberry) came in higher fat versions so, in order to have a good choice, we fell back on strawberry yoghurts – not startlingly new but certainly ubiquitous. We tasted 15 from supermarkets, large European manufacturers and boutique dairies.
Our panel was led by the Lebanese Gastronaut (LG) who grew up eating yoghurt daily, from the milk of goats, sheep and cows, with the rice and cracked wheat that accompanied chicken and lamb dishes. She was joined by the Gourmet Celeb (GC), the Discerning Litigator (DL) and the Gluttonous Pig (GP) – a man for whom the phrase “low fat” is akin to a funeral invitation.
It was clear we were looking for a more adult taste among the products: less sweet, with a balancing sharpness from proper yoghurt. We wanted to find good examples of that dairy, “farmyardy” taste that characterises the genuine article. And we were after a subtle, strawberry flavour rather than the ersatz, fruit gum juvenilia that cloys so many of the products aimed at children.
Bottom came a yoghurt which, I am afraid, displayed nearly all the traits we wished to avoid. Onken Fat Free Strawberry Yogurt (0.1% fat) had sweeteners, guar gum to thicken it and a sort of hyper-strawberry flavour: “a child’s just dessert”(DL); “like a sweet packet”(GP); “they’ve piled everything in this”(GC). We didn’t like Sainsbury’s Fabulously Fruity Probiotic Yoghurt With Senga Strawberry (1% ) much more either. Thankfully it had a simpler list of ingredients but was too sweet: “unpalatable”(LG); “sickly”(GC). And Muller Light Fat Free (0.1%) did poorly because of its use of the artificial sweetener, aspartame – both LG and DL wrote “synthetic” without conferring. It may have kept the calories down and lived up to its name but it was not for us: “unbearable lightness ”(GP).
Just outside our top three were a couple of yoghurts that we felt began to approach what grown-ups want: Marks and Spencer Strawberry Low Fat Yoghurt (1.1%) employed a decent yoghurt culture and Rachael’s Organic Low Fat Strawberry Bio-Live Yogurt (1.7%) got the prize for the simplest, most honest ingredient list, eschewing thickeners, flavourings or artificial sweeteners.
And so to our winning three. Third was Tesco Low Fat Strawberry Yogurt, which used a certain amount of starch, colouring and flavouring but still kept it simple: “good but needs a bit more fruit”(GP); “nice acidity”(GC). First equal was a pot from our friends at Muller who redeemed themselves with their Vitality Probiotic Low Fat Yogurt (1.7%): “creamy”(DL); “subtle”(GC). And it was joined by another worthy winner, Tim’s Dairy Low Fat Live Strawberry Yoghurt (1.1%), a family business in the Chilterns with authentic Greek origins: “welcome hint of a cheesy dairy”(GP); “at last – a good yoghurt!”(LG).
So, for a grown-up yoghurt, we suggest you read the label and avoid artificial sweeteners or too many thickening agents. Alternatively take the Lebanese Gastronaut’s advice: buy plain yoghurt that hasn’t been mucked about with and add your own fruit jam. Or raisins and walnuts. Or sliced bananas ... you get the idea.
1= Tim’s Dairy
Probiotic Low Fat Yogurt (4x125g, £1.70, waitrose.com)