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Article: Pasta, Ice Cream, Oil Squeak Into Hall Of Fame

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TASTER'S CHOICE

Pasta, ice cream, oil squeak into Hall of Fame

Carol Ness, Chronicle Staff Writer

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

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Taster's Choice

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Either 2005 was a rotten year for commercial food products, or the entire Taster's Choice panel of professional food tasters squeezed themselves into a pair of Chronicle TV critic Tim Goodman's cranky pants for the duration.

How else to explain why blind tastings of 44 different kinds of food -- hundreds of products altogether -- yielded only five new members for the Taster's Choice Hall of Fame?

This honor is reserved for the best of the best of supermarket foods -- those that get 80 points or more out of a possible 100 from the panel of five tasters.

Both last year and the year before, 12 products dazzled the panel enough to ascend into the Hall of Fame. The record for one year, set in 2001, was 17.

Figuring out why scores plunged this year is almost impossible. Even luxury items like crab cakes failed to make the tasters swoon with delight.

One theory for the Hall of Fame drought is that fewer sweets were tested this year -- and the panel has a definite sweet tooth.

Another, ventured somewhat dubiously by one of the tasters, is: "Maybe food got worse this year."

In any case, the top scorer among this year's five Hall of Famers was California-made La Tourangelle walnut oil, which scored 89 points. (See story, Page F1.)

Sweets, which have a tendency to win Hall of Fame status, claimed two of the five Hall spots. They were two coffee ice creams, Starbucks Classic Coffee and Lappert's Kona Coffee.

Two unorthodox pastas rounded out the top five. Tinkyada Pasta Joy Brown Rice Pasta, which is gluten-free, and Whole Foods 365 Organic whole wheat spaghetti are both part of a growing crop of pastas made from whole grains or wheat alternatives.

The 365 Organic pasta was the only store brand to make the Hall of Fame this year. Altogether, store brands won almost one-quarter of all the tastings in 2005 -- 10 out of 44.

The chart at right shows all the foods tasted this year, and the winner of each tasting.

One thing that stood out this year was the sheer number of competing brands that are crowding store shelves and refrigerator cases. Not long ago, a tasting might have included maybe 10 brands. This year, it wascommon to find 15 or even 20 brands of the same product.

A few times, the panel did a two-round tasting to fend off palate fatigue. Every brand made it into the first round, and the tasters did a thumbs-up, thumbs-down winnowing. Then the finalists went through the usual evaluation, where flavor, texture and appearance are scored and the tasters say whether they would buy that brand.

For the tastings, we try to cover the gamut of everyday foods, including staples such as bread and salad dressing, convenience foods like the shelf-stable gnocchi and cooking ingredients like vegetable broth and sesame oil.

Nine supermarkets are shopped for each tasting; occasionally, Costco or specialty stores are included. The Chronicle buys all the products; no manufacturer contributions are accepted.

If you have suggestions for future tastings, send them to food@sfchronicle.com or Taster's Choice, Food Section, San Francisco Chronicle, 901 Mission St., San Francisco CA 94103.

Please keep in mind that we cannot send individual replies or acknowledgements. We may not be able to follow your suggestions because we test various products only every few years, and your product may have been tested recently. Past Taster's Choice columns can be found by searching online at sfgate.com/food/tasters/archive.

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TASTER'S CHOICE 2005

Here are the winners of 2005's Taster's Choice tastings. The five Hall of Fame products -- any product that scores 80 or above -- are indicated by a *. A perfect score is 100. All products are tasted blind.

CONDIMENTS

* Walnut oil:

La Tourangelle 89

Fresh green salsa:

Casa Sanchez 76

Mayonnaise:

Best Foods Canola 73

Hearts of palm:

Organic Trading Co. 71

Artichoke hearts (not marinated):

Whole Foods 365 65

Balsamic vinaigrette:

Girard's 64

Turkey gravy:

Campbell's 59

Sesame oil:

Maruhon 54

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STAPLES

*Gluten-free pasta:

Tinkyada Pasta Joy Brown Rice Pasta 83

* Whole wheat pasta:

Whole Foods 365 Organic 83

Black beans:

S&W 79

Maple syrup (dark, grade A):

Trader Joe's Organic 78

Quick-cook brown rice:

Rice Expressions (frozen) 73

Smoked turkey:

Andronico's 72

Sour cream:

Horizon 69

Couscous:

Casbah Organic Whole Wheat 69

Whole wheat bread:

Vital Vittles 68

Canned salmon:

Kirkland 65

Vegetable broth:

Knorr 64

Canned crab:

Nelson Sea Treats 58

Frozen blueberry waffles:

Van's Organic 58

Dinner rolls:

Pillsbury 57

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DRINKS

Tomato juice:

Campbell's 79

Sparkling apple juice:

Martinelli's 78

Chai tea bags:

Good Earth 64

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SNACKS

Dried apricots:

Mariani California 79

Wheat crackers:

Wheat Thins 77

Rice crackers:

Trader Joe's Savory Thins 72

Frozen buffalo wings:

Manor-House 68

Chicken taquitos (frozen):

Reser's Baja Cafe 60

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DINNER

Frozen green beans:

C&W Petite 77

Mole sauce:

Rogelio Bueno 76

Crab cakes:

Whole Foods fresh 66

Frozen shrimp:

Andronico's bulk 63

Frozen meatballs:

Trader Giotto's Italian Style 61

Gnocchi (shelf-stable; frozen):

Mediterranea 58

Mushroom risotto mixes:

Safeway Select 51

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SWEETS

Coffee ice cream:

* Starbucks Classic Coffee 83

* Lappert's Kona Coffee 81

Brownie bites:

Whole Foods Two-Bite 76

Chocolate syrup:

Hershey's (squeeze bottle) 73

Raspberry jam or preserves:

Smucker's Red Raspberry 73

Panettone:

Maina 70

Chocolate chip cookie dough:

Tom's 66

Blueberry jam or preserves:

D'Arbo 63

E-mail Carol Ness at cness@sfchronicle.com.

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?...1.DTL&type=food

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