Regular readers will know that as a passionate foodie touching ready meals is against my religion. True, I have done the occasional review of such dishes via Tesco (see here) and Waitrose (here) for specific reasons, but for the most part I don’t them with the proverbial barge-pole.
Why so? It’s sheer laziness! I’m convinced that with just a few minutes planning and preparation it’s possible for pretty much anyone to come up with a good, fresh dish cooked from good, fresh ingredients that will be better and often cheaper than such mass-produced packages. I’ve proved before now you can do them quicker too, if you have a mind, though I also stand up fore the virtues of slow cooking to get better, tastier results. The sooner the British public abandons “convenience” and treats the food given to families as a priority, the sooner we may to love and appreciate food like our continental cousins.
Forgive my scepticism, since inevitably all processed meals are made to a budget, with manufacturers aiming to shave fractions of a penny off every dish to increase their profit margin. Their main concern is mostly shelf-life and product consistency; headline expensive ingredient is typically rationed, and submerged beneath a larger proportion of cheaper ingredients. I remain to be convinced that any processed meal can be (a) a better or higher quality alternative to what you can make yourself, and (b) that any manufacturer is different in that respect.
However, one must adapt to one’s circumstances. Mine are that I live alone and am 3/13 of the way through recovery from an ankle operation, hence being stuck in a plaster cast and therefore unable to devote quite the same attention to my cooking than I usually would.
In this predicament, I thought I would give a range of allegedly gourmet “handmade” ready meals supplied by Charlie Bigham’s a thorough testing to see if they justified the premium pricing applied by Mr Bigham, whose image and words feature large on his company’s website. Whether he is a Champagne Charlie or not I couldn’t say, but this is what he says about his products:
“Hi there. I’m Charlie and I founded Charlie Bigham’s back in 1996, with the sole aim of creating really delicious, top quality dishes, putting in all the love and attention that you would if you were to cook them yourself. In recent years I’ve noticed that many of my friends really struggle to find quality time to spend with their partners. Something always gets in the way, whether it’s kids, work or chores. So, I came up with a range that’s specially designed to steal back some time together. And people seem to really like it. In fact, we’ve even won a fair few awards recently. So turn off the phones, dim the lights, crack open a bottle and enjoy a wonderful night in over some really lovely food.”
But anyway, this is a range aimed squarely at the working household that usually cooks for itself and would not normally be seen dead with a ready meal. And what a range it is too, falling into three categories: pan fry (5), oven cook (30 options, including a couple in different sizes) and pies (2), totalling to date 34 different recipes. Hero that I am, I’ve tried 8 of them so far on your behalf, all the better to give a true and fearless verdict.
First thing to say is that these are not cheap options. Excluding short-date discounts and promotions (all manufacturers overprice and give promotions, which I personally think cheats the public, but then the marketing machine never will take account of my feelings), most of Charlie’s dinners for two hover around the £6-7 mark for 600-850g net content, compared to £2.50-3.50 for most supermarket brands. As this Daily Mail (of course) story reveals, Charlie has also kept his PR hat on by making a £314 ready meal, the most expensive on record. Trust me, if you have £314 to spare there are very many better ways to spend it on fine dining.
But back to the range. Seven of your pounds buys you a very simple and straightforward dish like macaroni cheese, topped with a few croutons and a bit of pancetta (posh Italian bacon.) Not even any gruyere there either! For the same money you can get a wide range of meaty mains for two people, including the likes of “Beef Bourguigon & Potato Dauphinoise” (which demi-français presumably suggests that Charlie does not believe his market is ready for boeuf bourguignon and pommes dauphinoise.)
Look further and you’ll find the likes of fish pie, chicken kievs, lasagne, chilli, risotto, Thai green curry, shepherd’s pie and a host more dishes. Tell the truth, Charlie’s menu is pretty much pub grub masquerading as something more pretentious, but then global comfort food is what really sells from supermarkets. Most clients err on the safe side of familiar, despite being slightly well-heeled, we can assume. However, their middle class pretensions are met by the inclusion on each cardboard package with a slightly amusing cartoon featuring an affluent middle-aged couple swilling wine and chortling over their packaged lasagne (or whatever.)
I’d have to say the dishes are very heavy on chicken and mince, though I have no information on the provenance of either meat to justify Charlie’s “top quality” tag. What I will say is that I am pig sick of chicken and am hungry for variation in my diet. Presumably there are people out there who eat chicken day in, day out, but vary only the accompanying sauce plonked on top of it. My view is that the choice of meat is integral and needs to be sympathetic to the construction of the recipe. I can see one dish with lamb and a few with a small proportion of pork or bacon or prawns or salmon; but not one has venison, duck, nor any other variant. Please, Charlie, can we cull the cult of chicken?
Taking for a moment the oven cook varieties, they buck the supermarket trend by arriving in ovenproof wooden trays (Charlie says “we think look rather handsome on the dinner table.”) Where rice accompanies the main, they provide a square of foil with which to cover the container before oven cooking, thus providing a haven against dry and unpalatable or overcooked said rice.
Portion sizes are worth discussing, for it’s not clear how these were arrived at – though noticeable that Charlie suggests side dishes to accompany his mains (slightly against the grain of his previous statement.) Most dishes seem on a par with other processed portions, though the topic cropped up when my mother and I shared Charlie’s chicken tikka masala with pilau rice. During which meal my mother was ominously quiet rather than her usual effusive self when it comes to food. I pressed for more information, but she would only say, “It’s not very generous, is it?”
In all cases, cooking in Aga ovens led me to reduce the cooking times given, but that apart the instructions were followed to the letter. Here are a few initial findings, compared to my own recipes for each dish:
- Macaroni cheese: reasonably creamy and cheesy (relatively cheap processed cheddar, I’m guessing), with pancetta a welcome addition. Certainly superior to other processed versions but nowhere near as good as Millward’s recipe for savoury appeal and relatively poor value for money (6/10)
- Fish pie: surprisingly better than I expect, since my experience of fish-based ready meals is not happy. Built around cod (14%), salmon (9%) and smoked haddock (3%), it is bound by a good savoury sauce including cheese (7/10)
- Lasagne: 8% beef, 5% pork and smoked bacon notwithstanding, ingredients also include chicken livers, balsamic and even star anise! Also a step up from most mass-produced lasagnes, but neither as meaty nor as impressive as expected (5/10)
- Meatballs al forno: somewhat underwhelming dish with reasonable meatballs (9% pork, 5% beef), a small portion of pasta, a thick tomato sauce and a little mozzarella cheese. For £7 I would expect something more startling (5/10)
- Chicken and mushroom risotto: after my recent demolition of Waitrose mushroom risotto, I did not have high hopes for this product, nor would I of the paella product either. It went to prove how right I am about how any processed version of risotto overcooking the rice which MUST be al dente. Sorry Charlie, but you have to get this right before anything else (4/10)
- Chicken tikka masala with pilau rice: heavy on the cream but good spice balance. Not a great curry in terms of depth of flavour or differentiating individual spices, but certainly a step up from some commercial sauces. Pilau rice surprisingly good flavour, even if a uniform yellow colour not typical of what your Indian takeaway typically serves (6/10)
- Chicken & mushroom pie: best product of the lot, and comes in attractive and reusable ceramic pie dishes. The flaky pastry, which we are invited to brush with milk, is much better than average, even if it does include palm oil (sustainable, allegedly.) The filling adequately meaty and gravy flavoursome (8/10)
- Indonesian satay chicken: this is the only pan-fry dish I tried, one of the weakest in value and performance. Comes without carbs, so provide your own rice or noodles. A few pieces of chicken mixed with a small pile of stir-fry veg is cooked, then coated in a sachet of peanut sauce, very similar to that which you can buy in a jar. For £6.50 this is very underwhelming and fails the taste test (3/10)
So to the key questions I posed myself:
- Do these products represent good value for money? I’d say they are 10-20% overpriced, though the inclusion of pie dishes improved VFM for the pies
- Are they better quality than other ready meals? Yes, by and large
- Are they as good as you would cook at home? No, except for the pies – but then pastry is not really my thing. Others may think differently.
These are certainly not bad dishes, and an effort has been made to improve standards, but they are still processed foods with the same criteria mentioned above. The biggest issue is not Charlie’s but that of society: we are still that not spending enough time looking out quality local ingredients, and worse still people are losing the knack of cooking for themselves. That is something the government and the education system should be tackling as a matter of urgency.
Would I recommend Charlie Bighams? Only if you really can’t be bothered to tare 10 or 20 minutes making appetising dishes for themselves, but then I never recommend products. My advice is always to shop around and come to your own conclusions. I hope the conclusions you come to will be that improving your own handiwork is way more satisfying and can be done with your loved one(s), leaving ample time to dim the lights and crack open a bottle. Don’t ever let a manufacturer kid you otherwise!
PS. Since writing this review, I’ve tried two more CB pan cook dishes: Vietnamese Chicken Curry and Moroccan Chicken Tagine. Leave on one side the slur to the respective nations, since neither dish was remotely what you might expect were you there – I certainly ate a number of tagines while I was in Marrakesh in 2015 and ate excellent Vietnamese curries in brilliant and authentic restaurants in Hoxton.
In both cases, the dish demonstrated the poor value of the pan-cook range (the tagine should include couscous for £6.49 and portions for two were decidedly stingy), and the fact that they are simply not good enough. If you’re going to try Bighams, go for the oven bake variety or one of the pies, but if you want an ethic pan-cook dish then do it yourself or go to a decent restaurant.
PPS. Two more dishes. The first was “Beef Bourginon” and “Dauphinoise potatoes” (retaining the pidgin French of other dishes, as if they chickened out from the “boeuf” and “pommes” part, fearing it would start a post-Brexit revolution among the British citizenry) and the second “beef stroganoff with rice.”
The bourginon and dauphinoise are pictured below. Both were very shallow in their wooden pots and certainly would not feed two people without additional veg. The spuds were the better of the two, though not as good as my version. The bourgignon has a number of decent ingredients but is suffused with an unpleasant aftertaste.
A later perusal of the ingredients reveal a tell-tale at the bottom end: star anise, not much but more than enough to overpower the beef and wine. Among classic recipes for bourgignon I’ve yet to find any containing this decidedly un-French ingredient. I’d earnestly advise Mr Bingham to ditch it from his recipe forthwith.