The label makers

Larissa Dubecki
Vinegar to verjuice: A selection of Maggie Beer's products.
Vinegar to verjuice: A selection of Maggie Beer's products. 

The product range has become a must-have for any chef intent on global domination. Head to your local supermarket and you'll see Jamie in the freezer; Ainsley Harriott peering out from the rice aisle; Maggie Beer stalking shoppers seeking anything from olive oils to vinegars, over to ice-cream - and did we mention verjuice? As for our cover boy, Luke Mangan, he's a king of branded product, offering up everything from Luke Mangan wine to Luke Mangan water.

Donna's done it. Heston, too. And Neil Perry and Gordon Ramsay. But Spanish molecular cuisine pioneer Ferran Adria releasing a range of products for home cooks (available through Simon Johnson)? Now that's getting a little weird, although it's certainly worth considering the possibilities of bringing modernist food antics into the domestic sphere. Spherifying and gelifying the vegetables would be a unique way of getting the kids to eat them.

A few observations: Australian chefs and cooks are not as creative as their American and British counterparts when it comes to the sheer breadth of products available. Rachael Ray has her own line of dog food, which is just asking for trouble. Jamie Oliver has diversified into compost.

Is it money for jam? Retail can be a brutal world, as proven by the end of Neil Perry's decade-long association with Woolworths. ''At the end of the day all that matters is the number of units you're moving and how much margin is being made for the retailer,'' his camp posted online. ''The unfortunate trade-off for quality is reduced margin. It can be pretty tough for the little guys out there.''

This week we went into the supermarket (and the provedore, and the online retailer) to see who's who in the chef product-line zoo. Who's cashing in and who's bringing something new to the table?

According to a Woolworths spokesman, ''Where [chef products] work best is where there's a clear link between the product and the aims and personality of the chefs themselves. Marion Grasby, for example, is known for her Asian cooking on TV, so it makes sense to customers that she does Asian dinner kits. It's all about credibility and trust. People now are interested in recreating a restaurant experience, so it's only natural chefs should gravitate towards coming into the home.''

Chef Luke Mangan.
Chef Luke Mangan. Photo: Tim Bauer

In no particular order, here's our top 10:

1. Stefano's Pasta Sauce ($10.85*)

Tomato sugo is a very personal subject and Stefano de Pieri's version cuts closest to my heart. It's very simple: ingredients are confined to roma tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, onion, garlic, basil and salt. The slick of orange oil on top when the bottle is opened is a little off-putting but it's quickly subsumed into the smooth, velvety-textured sauce, and the taste is reminiscent of my preferred technique of gently frying lots of garlic in the base oil before scooping it out. The result is a deep, garlicky sauce with no residual bitterness. We used this as the base sauce for goat's cheese ravioli, with some silverbeet and basil leaves thrown in at the end.

2. Darren Purchese for Connoisseur Murray River salted caramel ice-cream with chocolate-coated hazelnuts ($6)

No explanation needed: the killer salty sweet combination that's taken restaurant desserts by storm, folded into hazelnut ice-cream, with just the right amount of salt in the caramel sludge. Comes with a much-needed portion control message on the packet.


3. Tetsuya's truffle salt ($28)

Sea salt flecked with black truffle. The truffle specks might be tiny but they certainly manage to make their point. It's expensive, but best consider it a little bit of luxury in a 100-gram jar. Perfect for scrambled eggs and sprinkled on potato and rosemary pizza.

4. Maggie Beer's verjuice ($11.20) and vino cotto ($19.60)

The two must-haves from a serious supermarket contender. Essential pantry items that bend to all sorts of purposes - the sweet-sour vino cotto is great for everything from roasted meats to fruit and ice-cream. Avocado loves it.

5. Luke Mangan's dukkah ($7)

It's been on the table (next to the Luke Mangan olive oil) for diners to try at some of his restaurants. A salty crush of hazelnut and sumac, sesame and spices, just add crusty bread and quality oil, and voila - lunch.

Curry in a hurry: <i>MasterChef</i> star Marion Grasby.
Curry in a hurry: MasterChef star Marion Grasby. 

6. Adriano Zumbo's chocolate mirror cake ($6.20)

Going by the hype about MasterChef's resident sadist, Zumbo's creations are nine-tenths aspiration, one-tenth damnation. The packet for the chocolate mirror mud cake mix looks scary indeed with its glistening layer of chocolate glaze, but it turns out to be a bit of a breeze. Win.

7. Christine Manfield's chermoula ($11.25)

No gums, no numbers, no preservatives, colours or additives and no genetically modified ingredients. Christine Manfield isn't risking her reputation with this range stocked by Simon Johnson. I particularly liked the chermoula, with lingering heat and a good lemony kick mollified by coriander, cumin and a hint of cinnamon. Kudos also to Manfield's harissa ($11.95) and red chilli jam ($21.95) - all handy items for the fridge.

8. Jamie Oliver's Real Tomato Ketchup ($17.25)

The jubbly one has a split personality when it comes to his product range: Woolworths stocks his range of sustainable fish cakes for Findus, while Simon Johnson stocks a high-end range of preserves and sauces. For all the attempts to posh up the fish cakes ($4.50, made with pollock) using the likes of cheddar cheese, cream, chives and corn, they reminded me of the fish fingers I ate as a kid. File under ''a good freezer option for family emergencies''. His (really) ''spicy yellow pepper jelly'' ($15.85) is a great addition to any cheese board, but best of his range is the tomato sauce. The spiritual cousin of barbecue sauce, it's got masses of flavour, with dark caramel notes. Hands-down the winner over the control bottle of White Crow, the bad news is it keeps for only six weeks - so eat up.

9. Peter Kuruvita sambal ($12)

He's Sri Lankan, so he ought to know his sambals. This tastes like the real deal, with a funky shrimp paste base, tamarind and galangal, and good chilli power. We used it as a marinade on barbecued leatherjackets with an extra dollop doing double duty as a condiment on the side.

10. Marion's Thai Green Curry ($6.80)

It's a curry-in-a-hurry pack from Marion Grasby, the breakout star of season two of MasterChef, who promises Thai chicken green curry in 20 minutes. Really? It's not something you want people to spy in your trolley at the checkout but for the time-poor it's surprisingly not bad. Suitable for kitchen dunces, it has four numbered sachets and easy instructions - you'll need to add meat and vegetables, and make some rice on the side. Grasby has been a good performer on the basis of her Asian kit meals, according to a Woolworths spokesman: ''No one else was doing these kits - she spied a new market.'' The verdict: Not bad for a rush job on something normally labour-intensive.

And the not-so good:

Ainsley Harriott cous cous ($3.80) and risotto ($2.50)

The dubious convenience of the TV chef's lemon and mint cous cous (can't be bothered chopping?) is offset by the slightly medicinal flavour profile. The ''wild'' mushrooms in his risotto taste, to me, no wilder than my vegetable crisper. The bottom line is, anyone expecting greatness from a dehydrated risotto mix should take a good, hard look in the mirror.

Marion's Singapore Noodles ($6.80)

Grasby has Thai heritage - maybe that's why the Singapore noodles are the weak link in her dinner kit chain. The end result is dry and an unappetising puce colour. It's dominated by cloves and cardamom and serves two rather than the promised four - at least in my family.

Donna Hay's chocolate brownies ($8)

Likeable - the bits of chocolate that only partly melt in the oven gives these brownies a nudge. But something so easy to make from scratch surely doesn't require the packet-mix treatment.

Luke Mangan mustard ($8.95)

The green peppercorn mustard is off-puttingly grainy, with a flavour best described as tongue-curlingly strange.

Adriano Zumbo macarons ($6.20)

Was it me? It must have been me. After the success of the choc mirror mud cake, the salted caramel macarons were mealy and hard in texture. Then again, two other testers had the same mixed results, finding them tricky to execute, finishing with an unrewarding texture.

Maggie Beer sugo with rocket, olive and basil ($11.65)

You've got to laugh: it contains verjuice - written in bold on the label. Of course. It's extremely sharp, with olives that don't scream ''high quality''.

Geoff Jansz Moroccan Onion Marmalade ($10)

So, so sweet, with a medicinal aftertaste.

*Prices quoted are what we paid to buy the reviewed products.