- Premium reviews
- Express reviews
- Reviews rated
- Ratings received
I've owned this cooker for a number of months after my boyfriend bought it on a bit of a whim, and I've used it to cook all manner of dishes. I'm pretty keen and adventurous in the kitchen, and enjoy spending hours messing around with a whole variety of recipes, so I think I've put it through its paces pretty well. The results are pretty mixed - while this is a good appliance for most families who are pressed for time and therefore doing much heating, a keen cook creating recipes from scratch will probably become annoyed with it quite rapidly.
There are four burners, each of a slightly different size, overlaid by two large racks. This arrangement is extremely handy, as it means you have fine control over the heat supplied to each pan. The two back burners are of medium (large) and medium (small) size, while the left front is a fierce beast and the right front a gentle simmerer. This means you have complete freedom - you can cook something very gently if you're trying to extract flavour, or you can hubblebubble it fiercely to reduce it down speedily. Each individual burner is easily taken apart for cleaning: you can actually remove the tops and give them a wash in the sink, which is really handy.
However, the big downside is the recessed nature of the hob. This makes it extremely difficult to clean properly. I'm forever wiping, wiping, wiping it, trying to remove the debris that inevitably falls from pans. It simply gets stuck in the recessed rounded corners. The only way I've found to cope is to wipe it twice with a wet cloth and then once with kitchen towel. A flatter surface would be SO much easier to clean.
There's a glass lid that sits over the hob. I find this a useful feature because I'm really pushed for space. It enables me to use the top as a work surface to chop and prepare ingredients when I'm not actually cooking. However, it is extremely difficult to keep clean, showing up any fingerprints, and any dirt like nothing on earth.
This functions as both a grill and an oven, with a door that folds down rather than across. You have to light it manually, using the ignition on the top, which can be a bit of an irritant if you're busy cooking and have messy hands. Both oven and grill features have an inbuilt safety function: the gas will cut out if you partially close the door, meaning that you don't get incomplete combustion releasing carbon monoxide. However, as someone who has to work in a tight space, I find this a bit of an irritation, as I often go to close the door to get past the oven, only to find that I've actually put the darn thing out!
The grill flame is well-designed and toasts a tray really very evenly for a gas appliance. However, the racks are oddly spaced: the height bars are either a bit high or a bit low to allow for the most even finish.
The oven is less of a success story. The space inside is relatively small (though large enough for a standard size tray), and the line of flame heating it really quite long. The overall result is that it gets hot, hot, hot! Temperatures inside it bear absolutely no resemblance to the 'gas mark' values stated on the knob: at my estimation, gas mark 4 here is like gas mark 7-8 on other ovens (including the lower oven of this cooker). This means that while the oven is great for cooking things that require really high temperatures, like pizza, it's useless for slow roasting of small dishes. This is a shame as having a functional smaller over can be a really energy efficient way of cooking single tray dishes.
Cleaning-wise, the combination of a tight space, high heat, and non-self-cleaning surfaces is a bit deadly. Be prepared to do some scrubbing or to use an oven liner that you can simply remove. However, the glass door is a better piece of design: it has two panes of glass for insulation, one of which simply clips out to allow you to clean it in the sink, while you wipe the second in situ. It's brilliantly easy and really helps keep the cooker looking nice.
The bottom oven is a much larger space, with better temperature regulation, though you do get the usual problem found in most non-fan-assisted cookers, of hot and coolspots. Shelves are regularly and sensibly spaced, and allow you plenty of room for everything from big deep casseroles to shallow trays of roasting veg. I've cooked huge amounts in this oven, and have had great results with everything from fruit cake (cooked slow and cool) to pizza (fast and hot).
Cleaning-wise, this is the best part of the appliance. The sides and top are self-cleaning, which saves an awful lot of time. All you have to do is to "cook" an empty oven at gas mark 5 for 30 minutes and then gas mark 7 for a further 120 minutes and hey presto, clean oven! If only all domestic chores were so easy. It's only the bottom of the oven that needs to be wiped out occasionally. Zanussi recommend cleaners such as cif, but the best results I have had have been with Lakeland's Ovenmate. The door, like the grill door, has an easy-release pane of glass, which means that it's exceptionally straightforward to clean.
ELECTRONICS AND SAFETY
The electronics with this cooker allow you several timer functions with inbuilt safety features that make this a far more worry-free appliance than many gas cookers. There is the usual digital clock with inbuilt countdown timer feature for the oven, but in this case if the bleeper (which is fairly loud) is not switched off, the gas will actually cut out automatically, ensuring that conditions for a domestic fire are not created. You can also program the oven to come on automatically and heat whatever is inside, ensuring that you have hot food on the way home from work. Similarly, if the glass lid is down, the gas won't come on - which prevents accidents if kiddiewinkie fingers play with the dials.
This costs just over £400 in the shops, and is therefore good value for money. On the positive side, the burners provide a great deal of control, and the lower oven cooks beautifully and is easy to clean. On the negative side, the top oven and hob are a bit of a nightmare to clean, and the top oven is also far too hot for most dishes. Safety features, however, are extremely good and I feel very secure using gas in my home in this way. Much depends on how often you cook, and how keen you are. If you're generally making basic recipes, or heating ready-made food, this will see you through without any problems. If you're keen on cooking a wide variety of food, some of its shortcomings may seem more glaringly obvious.
My old kitchen mixer conked out recently, leaving me in a quandary with a pile of half-whipped brownie mix. Still in my pinny, I dashed down to my local supermarket looking for a replacement, and grabbed this product to finish the job.
Unfortunately, my impulse buy did not prove to be a particularly wise one. On the upside, this 200W beater has plenty of power. Whereas my old beater took about 6 minutes to get the eggs for the mix to a reasonably stiff state, this one does it in three. There are five speed settings too, which sounds quite impressive - but the problem is that they're not really very well calibrated so the bottom speed isn't much slower than the top one. The result? The time saving fast beating comes at a cost, namely the festooning of all kitchen surfaces in the vicinity with small pieces of egg. I simply couldn't find a slow enough speed on the machine to prevent splash - and I didn't even dare try the turbo setting. Also, the bowl underneath the mixer got pretty badly punished. I'm glad I was just using an old glass thing, and I wouldn't want to try this with a posher, prettier receptacle.
This also means that the body of the appliance tends to get a bit coated - it needs constant wiping. 'm not a big fan of white mixers with holes in them to ventilate the motor - in my experience, flour and cocoa tend to fly up and clog them up, meaning that the beater either looks horribly dirty or you have to spend ages with a cotton bud cleaning it.
On the other hand, the machine beats smoothly and consistently and it's not that noisy. The chrome beaters are easy to remove and clean, as are the dough hooks. However, the slightly odd shape of the latter means they don't work nearly as well as my standard Kenwood food processor when it comes to kneading and bullying that dough. Given that it cost me about £10, I am satisfied with its performance - it does a good job, and if you're not a madly keen cook and just want to beat the odd cake mix a couple of times a year, it'll see you just fine. In future, though, I'll learn my lesson: shell out a bit more cash if you want to ensure your dough is looked after!
To my admittedly eccentric nose, some of the big name scents on the high street smell of a peculiar combination of chemicals and cats. Perhaps it's because I'm slightly asthmatic, but when a woman walks past me wearing some of the big name fragrances, it's more likely to make me sneeze than swoon.
I love scents that smell of real flowers and the outdoors. The problem is that up until now this has tended to put me in a fragrance bracket with women aged upwards of 80, who like purple packaging and lily of the valley. Finding scents that are youthful, modern and trendy, yet fresh - and have bottles that I wouldn't be embarrassed to put on my dresser - has been somewhat difficult.
Hence my delight at the advent of the Paul Smith Rose perfume. This is a scent that actually smells of roses- a kind of mixture of clean, crisp tea roses and the simpler but headier old-fashioned blooms. It's quintessentially feminine, but not in a modern Katie-Price-festooned-with-a-pink-boa way: it manages to be simultaneously sophisticated yet fresh, girly yet grown-up.
The packaging, too, is lovely, as you'd expect from any Paul Smith product - a simple, minimalist bottle with a practical heavy base contains a very delicately pink liqueur. It will look good on any dresser, and is likely to appeal strongly to professional women in their late 20s-40s. It comes in a cream cardboard box with a picture of a rose, making this an ideal romantic gift for a classy birthday, Christmas, or even Valentine's. The only downside is that at around £25 for a 50ml eau de toilette, you can't bathe in it.
'How on earth can you get excited about a swimming cap?' I hear you cry. 'We've had words about this rubber fetish previously!'
Well, for me this cap is an absolute essential. Why? Because I have dyed hair. It's coloured what I would describe as a bright and vibrant red (though other people seem to prefer the term 'GIIIIINGER!'). I use henna to do this because I'm a bit of a hippy at heart. The only disadvantage of the process, however, is that henna and chlorine don't seem to mix well. If I don't get a reasonably tight seal from a swimming cap, within a couple of hours of hitting the pool, my hair is liable to dry to an equally vibrant, but less aesthetically pleasing, green.
Hence the importance of the swimming cap.
So why this swimming cap in particular? Well, for a start it seals really tightly - my hair emerges from the pool in an all-but-dry state. This is great for my dye, but also for my scalp, which doesn't get nasty and itchy a bit later. However, the cap manages to achieve this without being overly tight - I can easily get it over my long hair and it's not difficult to remove either (there's nothing worse than shivering while you try to get the damn thing off once you're done exercising).
Secondly, the material on the cap is really smooth - this is a long way from those bobbly old lady versions that appear to be made out of bath mats. This reduces drag in the water and assists you in swimming more quickly. I am absolutely convinced that it makes a difference to my speed in the pool, even though I'm hardly an elite athlete.
Thirdly, it's cheap - costing just £2-£4. That's a darn sight cheaper than redying your hair or splashing out on expensive conditioner.
The only disadvantage is that the rubber can be a bit sticky at the start of its life. But this is nothing that a sprinkling of old-fashioned talc won't sort out.
This book is so unbelievably, screamingly, achingly TERRIBLE that if you're used to reading good novels, it will probably make you want to gouge your eyes out with horror. In fact, so great are the levels of dreadfulness that it achieves, that it transcends its awfulness and becomes (unintentionally) hilarious.
The thing that first strikes you is Katie Price's amazing imagination. She really goes to town to imagine a life different from her own, showing her deep empathy and compassion for other people. Her heroine, Angel, is - guess what - a glamour model! Her life involves posing for lad's mags and tabloids. She's married to a celebrity (a footballer, Cal) with whom she has a young child, Honey. However, they are having some relationship issues due to post-natal depression - gasp!-, an experience which is described with all the finesse of a dying pigeon waddling in the gutter.
The pantomime-like characters in the book fall into three categories: Angel's adoring entourage (cheer!), bitchy designer-clad WAGs who are jealous of Angel's beauty (boo, hiss!), and hunky men ready to throw themselves at Angel's feel (phwoar!). The story - if it can be called a story - revolves around shopping, texting, clubbing and hot tubs. There are a couple of amusing moments where Katie attempts to describe emotional scenes, including one where Angel gets a bit upset and decides to kill herself, and these are described with all the finesse of a rampaging buffalo in a china shop. (In case you were hoping, I'm sorry to say that our heroine does not succeed in her attempt, and lives on to tell yet more godawful tales). Zola it ain't.
You wouldn't expect Katie Price to be a Jane Austen of prose - and, guess what, she's not. Sentences are bare, and most of the big words are brand names. There are amusing moments where Jordan just gets words wrong, for instance when Angel's adoring gay hairdresser tells her he'd bang her if he wasn't a 'homosexualist'! It's like reading a Janet and John book crossed with Now magazine.
However, even in the 'so bad it's good' stakes, this starts to wear thin pretty quickly. The book is around 400 pages long, and even my admiration for the awfulness was fading by the half way point. By two thirds of the way through, I would rather have indulged in self-mutilation than continued. Jilly Cooper offers much more fun silliness, if you want to read fluff.
I don't normally suffer from dandruff, but a recent hair catastrophe with a product that didn't agree with my skin caused my scalp to flake badly. Donning a hat and racing round to the nearest chemist, I grabbed a bottle of Head and Shoulders hydrating for just a pound.
Now the last time I used Head and Shoulders was as a kid, back in the 90s. It used to be an oozy, blue substance that ripped all of the moisture out of your hair, leaving it squeaky clean but drier than the Sahara desert, and prone to breakage. Therefore, it was only my desperation to get rid of the flakes that made me buy the new hydrating version.
When I cracked open the bottle in the shower, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the nasty, virulently blue liquid I remembered had been replaced with a more delicately coloured, pearlescent shampoo. The old medicinal smell had also vanished, and the new product smelt fresh, clean and pleasant. The shampoo also lathered up nicely in my hair, bringing immediate relief to my stinging skin.
After just one wash, the itching and skin irritation stopped, and the relief I felt was tremendous. After two, I no longer had flakes falling out of my hair. My hair was clean, and smelt great. I was delighted to ditch the hats I'd been wearing and let my hair flow free again!
However, despite the fact that this is a hydrating shampoo, my locks were a bit dry, especially at the ends, and had a tendency to tangle badly during the wash, even though I was using my trusty 'three minute miracle' conditioner. This persisted after I had dried my hair, too, with the back section in particular tending to become snarled up in the slightest wind.
To conclude, this is a massive improvement on the old-fashioned shampoo, but there's still some way to go before it's perfect. I wouldn't recommend it for everyday use, but it does get rid of dandruff, which is a major positive.
I'm a big fan of Aussie products in general, and I can't live without their 'Three Minute Miracle' conditioner. So, in pursuit of Cheryl Cole style locks, I was excited to try their Real Volume Shampoo.
Like the rest of the Aussie range, this comes packaged in a thick, opaque bottle 300ml bottle. It's not the most attractive product in my bathroom, but nor is it unpleasant to look at. Pop open the cap, and you have a thick, slightly pearlescent shampoo inside, which smells quite botanical, with a hint of beer (it contains hops).
The shampoo lathered readily, leaving my hair feeling clean, soft and volumized. My initial reaction was to be impressed. However, within a few hours, I started to develop an itchy scalp. Over several days of using the shampoo, this got worse and worse, until my skin started flaking badly. At that point I decided to stop using this product, and slapped on some good old-fashioned Head and Shoulders. The irritation cleared up immediately.
Though the shampoo did what it said on the tin, so to speak, it wasn't without side-effects. I'd advise anyone with sensitive skin to proceed with caution, especially as a bottle of this costs almost four pounds, which is an annoying amount of money to waste when it doesn't work!
Anyone who is a. female and b. hasn't been living under a rock for the last ten years has heard of Yves Saint Laurent's Touche Eclat. Neither a concealer nor a highlighter, but a little bit of both rolled into one, Touche Eclat hides under-eye circles and other minor blemishes, leaving even tired, hungover skin looking beautifully radiant. Unfortunately, the product comes with a huge disadvantage: it costs a credit-card-denting £21 for a simple pen. Ouch!
But here is where Boots ride to the rescue with their Instant Radiance Concealer. Clearly designed as a cheaper version of Touche Eclat, it's packaged similarly in a pen. However, whereas Touche Eclat go overboard with luxurious gold all over their packet, the Boots version is simple and black with gold lettering. If I have a gripe about this product, it's the fact that , like most of the rest of Boots' No 7 range, the lettering fades badly after just a few weeks in a makeup bag, which means you're left with a tired and jaded-looking collection after just a few weeks.
The principle of application is the same as with Touche Eclat. You click the bottom of the pen, like a ballpoint, and the concealer appears on an acrylic brush 'nib'. One of two clicks dispenses a small bead of the concealer, which is usually enough to cover under-eye bags and any other minor blemishes. Using the brush is very easy, as its plastic bristles clump together nicely, leaving it narrow enough to allow a very precise application of product. The only problem with this style of application is that it's not brilliantly hygienic - though it is highly convenient when you're on the go.
The concealer comes in two shades: light and dark. Being a thin concealer/highlighter, you don't require the same precision of colour as you would would with thicker foundations or solid concealers. On application, it blends into the skin beautifully with the slightest of touches, and does a terrific job of concealing small blemishes, dark under-eye circles and uneven skintone. It also works well as a highlighter, as it contains small particles that reflect light, brightening your skin and adding a healthy glow. It made me look human even after two hours of sleep following a work 'do', and, trust me, that's a massively difficult test to pass!
It's also suitable for sensitive skin. I find that some concealers and foundations can make me break out, but this is so fine and light in texture that it just glides on and off. Another upside of that is that it feels as if you're not wearing anything on your face: a welcome relief for those who don't like the heavy, sandy feeling of thick foundation.
Overall, I'd say that this gives Touche Eclat a good run for it's money, though it costs half the price at £11.50 for one pen. I know that sounds expensive, but if you don't have problem skin, you can get away with wearing just this some days, with the result that you actually save money on expensive foundation. Plus, you can often buy it even cheaper than the shelf price, as Boots frequently run '3 for 2' offers on their No 7 range.
What do you need from a great concealer? Something not too greasy, and not too chalky, that offers terrific coverage, yet doesn't sit on top of your skin, looking like poorly blended foundation. Ideally, also, something small, that can sit unobtrusively in your handbag, without screaming to the world 'YES, I TOO HAVE FLAWS!' Sadly, Boots no 7 concealer achieves almost none of these objectives.
The concealer comes in a simple, slightly curvy silver metal tube. It looks very attractive, but it is rather thick - wider than many lipsticks, instead of the narrower, finer packaging chosen by many other retailers. Pop off the lid, and you see a thick stick of concealer, about a centimeter in diameter. The width of the stick makes it difficult to apply with any accuracy - to do any kind of good job, you need to apply with a brush - which makes this less than ideal as something to use 'on the go'.
Then we have the consistency. The stuff is thick and gloopy. It goes on well, but stubbornly refuses to blend in, particularly to skin with no foundation on. Texture wise, it's far too chalky. This means that it tends to leave smears and smudges that not only look ugly, but advertise to the entire world that you are wearing makeup. This is something I would expect to find in a cheap concealer for a couple of quid, but as this product costs almost ten pounds, its deeply disappointing.
Skip this product, and try No 7 Instant Radiance Concealer instead. It's more than worth the couple of extra pounds it costs.
These days, the crisps aisle in the supermarket is less a place to get a snack and more a site of class warfare. No longer do we simply have a choice between Seabrook, McCoys and Walker's - oh no! Gone are the days where cheese and onion, salt and vinegar and ready salted were the only options in terms of flavour. Now we have dozens of varieties of crisps, with those at the top end claiming that practically every piece of potato in the packet has been carefully tended by a Michelin-starred chef. Words like 'handcooked' and 'handmade' stare down at us from every angle, while the humble cheese and onion has been metamorphosed into 'handchurned cheddar and spring onion delicately spiced with a frisson of cracked black pepper and finished with a sprinkling of parmesan'. There are even crisps made from parsnips. PARSNIPS, I TELL YOU!!
Call me old-fashioned and uncultured, but I like the older, cheap crisps. I've tried the expensive ones, and, bizarrely, I find them too... well... crisp. They're so thick that biting into them is like shattering very thin glass. They're so golden that they look more fake-tanned than Jordan. And don't even get me started on the state my fingers are in after dealing with all that oil.
McCoy's are a great example of gold ole-fashioned potato crisps. Everything about these crisps is satisfying.
First, they are crinkle cut, creating a furrowed texture which is flavoursome and crunchy without being brittle. The fact that the crisps aren't flat adds interest, though I suspect it may also contributor to the calorie content.
Second, the crisps are cooked to golden perfection: not the deep, dark, verging-on-granny's-mahogany colour of the expensive crisps, but a nice, sunny yellow.
Thirdly, McCoy's come in 50g packets, which is a satisfying amount by comparison to the ever-lighter Walker's varieties (though that has a downside in terms of the fact that there are a whopping 250 calories per pack, and the cost a bit more at around 70p).
Fourthly, said packets are made of thin, colourful shiny stuff, rather than that thick plastic they use for posh crisps which seems like it's trying to look like paper, and is impossible to open.
Fifthly, said packets are decorated with gold and handsome masculine colours. Pleasingly, there is an entire absence of pictures of sunshine, plants, worms, happy cows, smiling farmers etc. etc. etc. I don't especially need reminding that crisps come from potatoes - and I rather resent the advertisers who think that I'm so stupid that when I see a picture of a plant on the packet, I'll be fooled into thinking that I'm eating a wholesome health food. Simple, stylish packaging wins every time.
Sixthly, and most importantly of all, the varieties are unfussy and sound like crisp flavours rather than something off a posh restaurant menu. We have: Salted, Salt And Malt Vinegar, Mexican Chilli, Barbecue Chicken, Ham And Mustard, Flame grilled Steak, Sizzling King Prawn, Cheddar And Onion, Thai Sweet Chilli and Oriental Ribs.
Finally, the meat-flavours are all actually vegetarian - and I have to admit I think they taste the better for their artificiality. Call me unclassy, but there's a salty, full-on flavour to the faked meat dressing that I really enjoy.
Crisps are not a gourmet food. Don't get me wrong: I'm sure Heston Blumenthal could come up with a recipe for slow-cooking potato slices in truffle oil for fourteen hours and then marinating them in finest foie gras. And I'm sure the results would be delicious. But they still wouldn't have the straightforward, uncomplicated appeal of McCoy's basic crinkle-cut crisps. Give me these any day over a packet of deep-fried beetroot slices with a picture of happy carrots on the front.
I've never been much of a fan of wafer biscuits. My Mum used to give me a two-fingered kitkat in my lunchbox as a treat, and even at the tender age of eight I was disappointed by how little chocolate and how much wafer there was on there. The advent of Kitkat Chunky with its thick chocolate shell improved matters somewhat: here the wafer added a pleasant crunch to a proper chocolatey taste, and there was that pleasant chocolate 'hit' that inevitably comes with something that contains far too many calories per square inch.
Kitkat Caramel Chunky is one in a long line of novelty Kitkat flavours, designed to bring consumers back to the product. It's a bit of a cheap trick but I have to admit, it worked on me. The fact that the bars were two for 70p in Tesco also helped to persuade me, though!
The caramel in this bar isn't the runny kind you'd find in a Cadbury's Caramel bar. Instead, it's a dry, slightly mousse-like gunk that sits on top of the wafers, looking a slightly sickly golden colour and imparting a taste of burnt sugar. It doesn't look that appetising, but in taste-terms the effect is pleasant, though it didn't rock my world. Since ordinary Kitkats aren't exactly sour, the added sweetness in this variety would probably be too much for someone who didn't have a very, very sweet tooth. I enjoyed it as a cheap, novelty snack but I'm not sure I'd rush out to buy it again.
The first thing that almost anyone notices about Le Creuset cookware is its undeniable aesthetic appeal. Their pots and pans are beautiful, shiny looking things, in bright colours (red, blue, orange, almond and teal as well as black and white). They are traditional enough to be at home in a farmhouse kitchen, but also modern enough to look good great in a contemporary location.
The material that they use at the Le Creuset factory is cast iron, which is poured into moulds and then sanded down by hand. However, rather than cooking in cast iron directly (sometimes the case with other cookware), the pots and pans are then enamelled to give them a hard, shiny finish. Handles are made either of cast iron (which tends to get hot), or of hard, durable plastic (which is better, because it stays cool).
The advantage of using this method of construction is that you get a pan with a basically smooth surface which distributes the heat very evenly over the surface. They are heavy, so they don't move around on the stove top and won't warp, and they are also economical to use, as cast iron retains heat well. Also, enamel doesn't pick up bacteria or smells from food, which means that the pots are hygienic and odour-free.
However, cast iron and enamel are not without their disadvantages. The pans are heavy to lift - problematically so for anyone with weak wrists or arthritis. While the enamel surface is much less sticky than plain cast iron, it's not as good as a non-stick coating and the conductive capacity of the pans means that food will get burnt on if you're not careful. Still more inconveniently, you can't put these in the dishwasher because the coating has to be treated gently, and washed in nothing stronger than warm, soapy water. You're not supposed scrub them either, which leaves you in something of a bind if you have burnt-on residue. Though a special cleaner is available from stores like John Lewis, it is an additional expense. You can loosen really stubborn substances by boiling up some water in the pan, but this is an extra hassle, especially when compared to stainless steel cookware that can just go straight into the dishwasher.
The pots are a good shape and size to use, but they are not perfect in design-terms. The milk pan has a spout that is all but useless - trying to pour from it results in a horrendous mess down the side, to the point that it's actually easier just to decant liquid contents from the flat, opposite side of the pan! This really is poor design, and could even be dangerous in the hands of someone younger or elderly.
The most telling disadvantage, though, is the expense of these pans. Prices range from around forty pounds for a milk pan, to a hundred pounds for a casserole dish. Quite frankly, in practical terms, they're just not worth that kind of money: you can buy far better pans (such as those used by commercial chefs) for that price. Really, they are more of a status symbol than a piece of kitchenware that will transform your cooking.
'Two hundred and fifty quid for a sleeping bag?!' I hear you cry. 'For that, I'd expect it to pilot a fighter jet, tapdance and play chess! What could possibly make a humble sleeping bag worth that kind of money?'
The short answer is simple: this is a lightweight bag, stuffed with down which makes it pricier. At 900g, it's not one of the very lightest on the market (there are several now that weigh in at under 500g, including the Rab Q-top that weighs 454g), but it does impress with a three season comfort rating that extends down to around -7 degrees celcius, making it suitable for all but the most extreme conditions you could encounter in the British Isles. This makes it a good compromise in the weight-for-warmth stakes, and well worth considering for anyone who is a keen backpacker and wishes to camp at times of year that lie outside of the summer months.
The outside of the bag made of a special Pertex Quantum fabric, which weighs just 30g a square metre, yet offers tremendous toughness and endurance (not to mention an easy-to-wipe surface, which is a must when you're outdoors). The only thing you do have to watch is that you don't catch the fabric in the bag's zipper as you get in and out, as this could damage it.
The bag is then crammed with 400g of goose down from Poland (hence the name Quantum 400). And when I say 'crammed' I mean absolutely jammed - the fill power of this down is around 750+, making the bags both soft and warm. This is what gives the bag its impressive three-season capacity at this weight: sometimes nature still does better than mankind, and down is still vastly superior to any of the artificial, manmade fillers on the market in terms of warmth-weight ratios. It also makes the bag highly compact - it can pack down to just 15cm x 25cm, which means more space for other kit in your rucksack. What's more, it comes with a lightweight stuff sack for this very purpose, as well as a larger cotton bag for storage (you shouldn't store down bags fully compressed, as this damages the filling, making it less warm).
The construction of the bag is a narrow precurved box wall, which is lighter than the old-fashioned shell construction. It has a shoulder baffle, and a full length zip, with a shoulder and hood section for extra warmth around your head. Design-wise, it's very comfortable, with cleverly spaced baffles that keep the down evenly spaced, and ensuring that there are no cold spots. I find it very comfortable to sleep in too, offering plenty of cushioning from the rough ground!
Another good feature of Rab bags is that they don't just come in one size. You can get a ladies version, an extralong version, an extra wide version and extra short version, ensuring that everyone has a bag that is comfortable for their bodyshape, while those of us that are smaller and female don't end up carrying unnecessary extra weight!
There are some negatives to this product, though. As I already mentioned, it is expensive, and many may feel that cheaper, slightly heavier bags offer better value. For those truly concerned with lightness, there are bags that weigh in at around half the Rab Quantum 400's weight, which might make serious backpackers, climbers and mountain marathoners think twice. This product is not the most pared-down sleeping sack you'll find: it still has features like a full-length zip that you wouldn't find on a serious lightweight sack where every detail is designed to minimize heaviness. Finally, if you're really worried about warmth, there are winter bags that deliver more toastiness: I wouldn't want to risk this bag in conditions that I knew would fall to minus five or below.
The main disadvantage, though, for those who camp regularly is the problem with washing down bags in an ordinary washing machine. Goose down doesn't react well to getting wet! If you're doing standard camping, and looking to spend a lot of time outdoors in the mud, a cheaper washable, synthetic sleeping bag is a much better bet.
However, for those who want to travel light, but stay warm, this bag offers a versatile compromise solution that makes it well worth considering.
Thorntons Premium Selection is one of several members of the Thorntons range to be available in several supermarkets, as well as in the high street retailer's stores. It is a more upmarket version of their Classic Selection, but far, far nicer than its cheaper baby brother.
Whereas the Classic Selection contains more soft-centred caramels and fruit-flavours (not my bag), the chocolates in here tend more towards deep, velvety truffles, soft, light mousses and crunchy pralines (my favourites). The chocolate in them is of a higher quality than in comparable boxes: it's thicker, and darker, with the result that there is a big leap up in terms of flavour. You really can get a chocolate 'hit' from these, so high is the cocoa content in some of them. Unfortunately, there's also a corresponding hike in terms of price - 430g of these chocolates will set you back around twelve pounds, whereas 350g of Thorntons classic collection costs just six pounds. However, that said, it really is worth paying the extra: these are SO much nicer than the cheaper box!
At 527 kcal and over 33g fat per 100g, these are not a health food. But you don't need me to tell you that chocolates are unhealthy! A more significant gripe, however, is that the packaging could be nicer. Thorntons are now selling these in two sizes, and the larger of the two comes in a huge cardboard box, almost 50cm wide. As a petite person, I'd prefer to have a double-layered, smaller box that would sit on my lap more easily, too. Also, there's little step-up in the quality of packaging to reflect the fact that these are a more luxurious brand than the continental collection. I'm not a big fan of acres of tissue paper and wrapping, but a better and more stylish design is needed here. In fairness to Thorntons, though, you can buy a special 'gift wrapped' version of the box for a couple of quid extra.
There's also nothing on the packaging about the chocolate being fair trade. Since even Cadbury's Dairy Milk is now part of this movement, it's about time Thorntons updated their ethical policies to bring them into line with the modern world - and to give farmers a fair slice of the profits.
Inside the box, you get a host of different varieties, some dark chocolate, some milk and some white. Individually, the chocolates are beautifully presented: some are dusted, some finished with patterns of different coloured chocolate. Flavours range from coffee to amaretto to champagne, and textures are beautifully varied, with plenty of gorgeously rich truffle interiors matching crunchy nuts and whipped mousse.
For my money, these are some of the nicest chocolates you can buy on the high street. They're not absolutely first-rate, and don't compare to the kind of thing you'd get in a posh chocolate shop, but then they are also considerably cheaper than a box of handmade truffles! In the bracket they are punching in, they are a real cut above the competition (supermarket own brand boxes, Black Magic, Milk Tray etc).
The MSR pocket rocket is a camping stove that has been carefully designed to be as lightweight as possible. It is aimed at serious backpackers, who are seeking to save on weight in their packs. In fact at just 3 oz or 85g, it's so light that it has become a staple part of the kit for mountain marathons. These are long, outdoor runs lasting at least two days and crossing rough terrain, in which competitors have to carry all their food and survival equipment, including a mandatory stove and tent. \When competing in one last year, I decided to invest in a Pocket Rocket to ensure that I was carrying as little extra poundage as possible.
The stove is made of aluminium, where higher-end pieces of kit are made of titanium. However, the latter are extremely expensive, and no lighter overall, whereas the MSR pocket rocket costs around thirty quid and is plenty sturdy enough to stand up to even rugged conditions.
Even though I was expecting a lightweight piece of kit, I was surprised at the tiny dimensions of this stove. It packs down nicely to a very small size indeed (be careful with its sharp edges around delicate pieces of kit, though!). When you unfold it, you have a three-pronged platform (MSR call it a 'Tri-sectional Windclip') which you secure on top of your gas canister. Once you've done this, you have something that is just big enough to seat a small pot.
Like most stoves designed to sit on top of fuel canisters, this is not the most stable piece of cooking equipment, and for that reason I would urge caution to anyone thinking of using this around small children. It's an adult piece of kit, really, not something family-friendly.
The stove allows the flame to be controlled with a metal key at the side. This is relatively straightforward to use, though it does get a bit fiddly when your hands are freezing cold despite the fact that the manufacturers claim that the key is 'glove friendly'.
The Pocket Rocket is also impressively efficient: the manufacturers claim that it can bring a litre of water to the boil in under 4 minutes, and I certainly managed the same thing in under 4 minutes in benign conditions over the summer. Better yet, the stove doesn't need any priming or maintenance: you just plug it into the fuel, and you're ready to go.
As you might expect from something of these dimensions, it's not the sturdiest camping stove, nor the largest. There are better products to use on camping holiday with the family where you are cooking for eight people! Also, for a holiday, gas canisters are not the cheapest fuel source for cooking! However, if you need to travel light, and you want something small yet sturdy and reliable, you'd have to go some way to beat this stove for value and reliability.