Thursday, December 09, 2010

Return of the Ritter Sport ratings

Ah, it's a great excuse to go to Germany at least twice a year. Ritter religiously bring out summer and winter varieties; so here they are, in all their glory. (The summer varieties, along with another three new ones, were evaluated while I was on my way back from Romania, and I transcribe here from my travel journal; the three winter varieties were sampled when I was in Berlin giving a talk.)

Raisin & Cashew: 6/10
Given my current cashew-nut obsession, it pains me to give this one a low-ish mark. The problem's not that there's anything wrong with it - just that it pales in comparison to what it could have been. Ritter have gone for a fairly traditional fruit & nut combo, which goes down easily enough; too easily, really. Cashews aren't the crunchiest of nut, and here they're chopped extremely finely, with the risk that they are overwhelmed entirely by the fairly rich Ritter milk chocolate and raisins in some mouthfuls. I'd have preferred larger chunks and, for that mater, a more adventurous recipe: cashews and caramel, for example, or cashews and some sort of liqueur/liquor. Still, this one was a pleasant enough eating experience and left a fine taste in the back of my mouth. Never going to be a favourite, but this was definitely worth a try.

Caramel & Nut: 9/10
My goodness, Ritter, you really can pull it off. This one was magnificent - the flavours and textures of the standard milk chocolate, the dry caramel and the crispy nuts all blend together like magic upon contact with your tongue. It's a long time since I did the bulk of the ratings, but I'd be hard pressed to say that this isn't the best variety I've ever tasted. Then again, I have been subsisting on dried bread and cashew nuts for the last few days. Whatever the case, this is a top-class variety that I couldn't bring myself to take my time over. Not too sweet - a bit salty.

Milk & White Chocolate: 6.5/10
I expected this one to taste like a Kinder egg, and for once with a Ritter Sport I got exactly what I was expecting. Very sweet and cloying; dark mixed with white would have produced a more interesting contrast, even visually, and the look of this one from above is its biggest selling point. Problem is, I'm just not that much of a fan of white chocolate given the choice. Oh well - at least it doesn't kill me like it does David. Overall, not terrible, but nor is it a real pleasure to eat like so many other varieties.

Stracciatella: 7/10
As a massive stracciatella ice cream fan I couldn't turn this one down - it's one of their three summer varieties for 2010. They've done a good job of recreating the refreshing taste, but it didn't quite have the bite of the ice cream version, of course. The contrast between dark and light, between the freezing, melting cream and the rich, unyielding shards of chocolate, just can't be translated. The vanilla cream eventually becomes tiresome, too. Yet for all that, it's worth it just to get the initial shock of recognition. A success, even if not destined to take off as a chocolate variety.

Fruits of the Forest & Yoghurt: 7.5/10
Ate this one while wandering around the grounds of Osborne House, Queen Victoria's favourite house. Very acidic, flavoursome fruit filling, and the yoghurt is well done, although I've long since forgiven Ritter for having a yoghurt filling that doesn't taste like yoghurt, since it's basically impossible. The fruit goes well with the chocolate; dark chocolate may have made this one even better, though, just for the contrast factor. That thought prevents me from giving this a top rating, but it scores highly nonetheless.

Peach & Passionfruit: 7.5/10
Coated in white chocolate and with a crunch that presumably has nothing to do with peach or passionfruit, this was a surprisingly enjoyable eat. The fruity flavours were sharp enough to offset the more mellow sweetness of the white chocolate, and the passionfruit was very genuine and dominant (called 'Maracuja' in German). Not really a complaint to be made against this variety; it's not my favourite of flavours, but the execution of the concept is perfect.

Orange & Marzipan: 8/10
Not 'delicious', but close enough to warrant an 8. Certainly there's not much to criticise in this intriguing balance of flavours: the sharp, insubstantial orange flavour contrasts deliciously with the weightier taste (and texture) of the marzipan. Oops, did I say 'deliciously'? I meant 'almost-deliciously'. In this battle of the big hitters it's the chocolate that loses out, if anything, but its creamy texture still provides the frame for the whole experience.

Nut in Nougat Cream: 5.5/10
Boring. I feel like I've eaten this one before. Not bad, just boring.

Vanilla Cookie: 7/10
Tasty. Crunchy bits of cookie with a vanilla flavour in milk chocolate. Went down a treat - the pieces of cookie were large enough to give one pause for thought, so texturally a success as well as in terms of taste. Perhaps not a particularly adventurous variety, but it beats all those variants with different types of nut in them, and I certainly wasn't expecting it. Bring back the legendary Baileys flavour or the Smarties, though - the possibilities are endless!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Another thing that's beneficial to society despite being inherently unprofitable

I'm talking about education, innit?

Lest anyone get the wrong idea: we've been here before. The Browne Review recommends cutting public funding for university teaching by 80%. That sounds remarkably similar to the 1982 Serpell Report mentioned in my post of last year, which would have cut UK rail network mileage by 84%. Both reports were motivated by the same concern: the desire to make a publicly-funded entity economically self-sustaining.

Perhaps the similarity ends there. Sir David Serpell was a well-respected senior civil servant, tasked by his government to find a stupid answer to a stupid question. As a relative of his, Nick Serpell, pointed out on my blog, I shouldn't have given the impression in my last post that the report represented Serpell's own opinion. I'm sorry I did so.

Lest it be said that I shy away from ad hominem attacks, though, let's talk about Browne. A member of an institution well known for its transparency and accountability, the House of Lords, Browne is a distinctly oily figure - even putting aside the fact that he used to be Chief Executive of BP. This is a man who has admitted to lying in court. He's never had any serious involvement in academia himself - in fact, it's even been speculated that one of his motivations in proposing cuts may be to get back at the Cambridge establishment for being slighted by one of his professors during his own university days. He's also been accused of making fierce cuts during his time at the helm of BP - although that's in the Daily Mail, so should be taken with a pinch of salt. In any case, it's clear that this isn't the sort of man we'd expect to be appointed to chair an impartial review of spending on academia; unless, of course, the outcome was essentially predetermined, the game rigged.

Various people have pointed out, not particularly perspicuously, that the way UK universities currently fund themselves is not economically self-sustaining. As I've argued in my previous post, however, to argue that everything can, and should, be profitable reveals a serious misunderstanding of how human society works. The question that Browne (like Serpell) was tasked with answering isn't even one that it makes sense to ask. Education (like the rail network) isn't profitable, and shouldn't need to be. Funding it publicly shows that we're better than animals: we can actively choose to improve the way the world works, to make sacrifices for the greater good, rather than engage in a narrow-minded orgy of self-interest as the capitalism apparently espoused by the last two governments would have us do, blindly trusting/hoping that the invisible hand will level it all out. But that's enough naively idealistic vitriol.

Jessica pointed out in a comment on (the Facebook version of) my previous post the value of education. I didn't give it much thought at the time. Now, of course, I am doing, for the simple reason that it threatens something I hold very dear indeed: the availability of education, and the pursuit of broadening the sum of human knowledge. I should point out that I'm not personally threatened: I have funding for the rest of my PhD, and when that's over I should have the qualifications to do pretty much anything I want short of becoming an astronaut or brain surgeon. But future generations will have to bear the brunt of this - which is another reason I think the proposed cuts are abhorrent. Future generations suffer from the notable disadvantage of not being able to defend themselves: they can't vote, and they're mostly very small if alive at all. In fact, why doesn't Browne just cut out the middleman and set about punching babies of poor families in the face? It would have the same net effect. (Incidentally, the same argument applies to global warming deniers and other such head-in-sand-buriers; passing on a problem to the next generation while ignoring it and allowing it to grow in the meantime is Not Ka-Blamo!)

Nor does pointing to America provide a solution. American universities are largely able to stay afloat and provide scholarships, insofar as they can, because of a culture of philanthropy on the part of those who have struck it rich in the real world. Such an attitude is totally alien to the UK, and I find it hard to believe that the situation would change suddenly if fees were increased and public spending slashed. The American model isn't going to be transferred over here overnight. It would take time, and, as is well known, time is money. Money is something British universities will lack if Browne's proposals go through; by the time the "philanthropic mindset" sets in, if it does so at all, many smaller departments and institutions will have sunk without a trace.

Oh, and of course in the above I've taken it as given that broadening the sum of human knowledge is a good thing. Please don't disagree with me on that, as it would make me sad.

There's a demonstration on 10th November. If you agree with any part of the above*, I'd strongly encourage you to attend. It's hard to imagine an issue with more potential impact on the way our society currently works.

*Except the part about punching babies. Again, Not Ka-Blamo.