May 21, 2024

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Free For All Food

IndyBest’s best food and drink buys 2020: Plastic-free tea, vegan cookbooks and more

There’s been a lot more staying in than going out in 2020, and dining at home when we’d normally have had a meal out – for events like birthdays and anniversaries – has become the norm.

The good news, though, is that there is so much incredible food and drink now available to order in that we’re really spoilt for choice, whether we fancy cooking up a special meal at home, or simply enjoying some good snacks with a cup of tea or coffee.

From the best champagnes, to subscription boxes offering everything from chocolate to cheese, you can reach restaurant standards at home with the right ingredients, a little bit of prep and a decent recipe book.

Here we bring you a round-up of some of the very best food and drink on offer over the past 12 months. 

And if there’s anything you haven’t tried yet but think you might like, we encourage you to treat yourself: after 2020, it’s well deserved.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.

(Pasta Evangelists )

Pasta Evangelists feels like a recipe box for grownups. A letterbox-friendly parcel gets posted through your door, containing two different fresh pasta recipes – you can choose from 10 different recipes each week, and you can also get next-day delivery, which is a big tick.

It’s a clever idea because pasta is so easy to transport and takes so little prep – as the sauces are pre-made, you’ll never have to spend more than 10 minutes cooking, and you’ll end up with near-restaurant-quality food. Dietary requirements are well-catered for: we had vegetarian cacio e pepe and vegan orecchiette with pesto and a pistachio crumb (we ended up adding a fair amount of salt and pepper to this, but that’s a very minor complaint). Now all you need is a nice bottle of wine.

Best prosecco: Alberto nani organic prosecco DOC, £8, Asda

(Asda)

We were blown away by the quality of this prosecco. An extra dry spumante that still manages to be extremely crisp with no over-sweetness, it was an instant hit with our testers who liked how well structured, creamy and fresh it was – they estimated it cost twice the price. A straw-coloured yellow with the desired apple, peach and pear notes, this great-value wine is fabulous on its own, or with many kinds of canapés. We’ll be stocking up on this one.

Best cheese subscription box: The Fine Cheese Co subscription, from £108 for three months, The Fine Cheese Co

(The Fine Cheese Co )

If you’d prefer to know exactly what you’re signing up for, rather than committing to a rolling subscription, The Fine Cheese Co offers blocks of three, six or 12 months of cheesy indulgence. If you go for the latter, it’s guaranteed you’ll never receive the same chunk twice. Our box contained three cheeses (a soft goats’, a classic stilton and a gouda-style from Bath), alongside biscuits and a booklet that was so comprehensive, we felt as though we were on a cheese course. The helpful glossary gave us the language we needed to jot down our tasting notes and scores.

Best vegetarian cookbook: ‘Vegan: The Cookbook’, £29.99, Phaidon

(Phaidon)

This extensive tome from long-time vegan and restaurant owner Jean-Christian Jury could otherwise be known as the Bible of vegan cooking. We love how comprehensive this book is, boasting more than 450 recipes from more than 150 countries. From crispy orange-ginger tofu and strawberry mochi to grilled portobello mushroom tostadas, this book has all you need to suit every mood, taste and occasion. The book is divided into starters, salads, soups, main courses, grains and beans, pasta and noodles, and desserts, with each section featuring recipes categorised by country. You’ll see cuisines from Moldova, Papua New Guinea and Suriname sitting alongside the more familiar flavours of France and China. There is also a guest chef section, which features recipes from internationally renowned chefs such as Dan Barber and Alexis Gauthier.

(The Chocolate Society)

Experimental in ingredients, flavours and techniques, Valrhona-trained chocolatier Alasdair Garnsworthy creates small batches of seasonal chocolates out of a professional kitchen in rural Somerset.

The July box included summer-packed flavours like ice-cream-cone praline – where the most velvety white-chocolate ganache was spiked with vanilla and speckled with luxurious gianduja and crunchy feulletine – and we couldn’t get enough of the virgin mojito truffle with its impressive zesty zing and mint freshness within a fine dark-chocolate shell.

We liked that you receive two of each variety so you can share. They were also hands down the most lovely-looking chocolates we saw, with their eye-catching, colourful shells decorated with contemporary contrasting metallic flecks and their elegant box and tied with ribbon. A warning: you’ll struggle to part with them if you’re giving as a gift.

Best champagne: Leon Launois brut NV, £21.95, Slurp

(Slurp)

Launois was bought by the small, family-run Mignon champagne house in 2003, preserving a historic estate in the heart of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, famous for its Grand Cru vineyards. A blend of grapes, this wine benefits from the sprightliness and vibrancy of chardonnay and the juicy overtones of pinot noir. A fruit-led champagne, with ripe white peach and plump damson notes, it’s everything that classic fizz should be.

Best healthy food subscription boxes: Well Meals weekly subscription, from £29.50 for five meals, Well Meals

(Well Meals)

After becoming unhappy with treating problems that she believed could be prevented by a healthy diet, pharmacist Mina Khan created Well Meals: a nationwide service that delivers kitchen-cooked, nutritionally balanced, frozen meals to your door.

Put aside any preconceived ideas about freezer meals, because Well Meals taste how freshly prepared, nutritious and delicious food should, thanks to Khan’s love of authentic Indian home cooking (not all the meals are Indian, though) and her knowledge of ayurveda.

Choose from meals such as our favourite tandoori salmon, peri-peri chicken or vegan mushroom risotto, safe in the knowledge the dishes use freshly ground spices and are designed to nourish the body.

The calorie count per meal is around the 450 mark, with all nutritional info displayed clearly; meals are low in saturated fats and sugar while also being additive free. All packaging is 100 per cent recyclable. We found Well Meals to be an affordable and enjoyable way to eat healthily for the working week, instead of running to the supermarket for a nutritionally inferior meal.

Best American whiskey: Westland garryana American single malt 2019 edition, £165, The Whiskey Exchange

(The Whiskey Exchange)

Seattle’s Westland distillery takes Scottish single malt traditions and reimagines them with local ingredients, including more than 20 varieties of barley. Garryana is a single malt, aged in sherry casks, then finished in casks made of Garry oak, a tree native to American’s Pacific Northwest. With creamy vanilla and honey flavours and textures, and a rich, dense fruitiness, this drink is spiked with spices and has an almost smoky, dry oak taste. In this whiskey, tradition meets modern American invention – and the result is one to savour. 

Best plastic-free teas: Brew Tea Co proper tea earl grey, £4.95 for 15, Brew Tea Co

(Brew Tea Co)

This brand is about as transparent and sustainable as it comes – and fun too. Brew Tea, based in Manchester, uses whole leaves (not dust, it insists) and is a member of the Ethical Tea Partnership which supports small estate growers. This is a refreshing brew full of flavour, mixing bergamot oil with ceylon black tea, orange peel and calendula petals. All the tea bags from the brand are made from cornstarch, while the inner lining is made from Natureflex and inside the box is a useful card telling you what all the packaging is made from and how it should be recycled: from the council food recycling for the tea bags and inner lining, to the outer box that goes into the paper recycling.

(Knepp Wild Range Meat )

This is technically a build-your-own meat box scheme, but sometimes something so brilliant comes along that you have to bend the rules.

The Knepp estate too bent the rules of conventional farming to create a system that is completely unrecognisable from modern-day agriculture. Essentially, the 3,500-acre Knepp estate has been rewilded – a careful selection of animals were introduced onto the land and pretty much left to their own devices.

Our favourite fact is that the Tamworth pigs can hold their breath for up to two minutes while exploring for mussels growing at the bottom of the lake. With no natural predators on the land, the venison, cattle and pigs are culled once a year to produce every cut of “wild-range meat” imaginable, from grassy steaks and fragrant fennel sausages to bacon that is beautifully marbled the whole way through.

The meat is full of flavour, you have to taste it to believe it. Produce ranges in price depending on the cut and meat you choose.

Best independent coffee brand: Easy Jose indigenous community coffee, 250g, £9.50, Easy Jose

(Easy Jose)

The Mayni is a community of 30 or so indigenous families living in the Peruvian rainforest – an area under constant threat from slash-and-burn agriculture. Committed to tackling the destruction of the Amazon, Easy Jose has worked with the Mayni and neighbouring communities for several years to help protect the forest and allow the people to earn a good income from the land, sustainably, by growing, hand farming and processing coffee. With the support of Easy Jose and conservation groups, the Mayni can continue to live their traditional way of life while enjoying the commercial success from their incredible coffee. 

All of Easy Jose’s coffee comes from the Mayni. Choose from indigenous community coffee, the community blend, seasonal blend or decaf. On opening, the indigenous community coffee was simply bursting with a nutty aroma, and its almond and orange flavour did not disappoint in the cup.

(Waitrose & Partners)

This Hampshire vineyard’s sparkling rosé scooped gold at this year’s International Wine Challenge, and it’s not hard to see why this fresh, beautifully balanced wine won over the judges. With a delicate, salmon-pink hue and soft mousse, it has aromas of bright red fruit and summer berries, leading on to strawberry on the palate, with a creamy texture and toasty notes. We loved it on its own or, if you’re feeling decadent, it goes a treat with lobster.

Best vegetable box: Organic no potatoes veg box, £17.95, Eversfield

(Eversfield)

One of many excellent organic veg options from the southwest, Eversfield offers a variety of boxes, but we particularly enjoyed this “no potatoes” pre-made selection. We’ve got nothing against spuds, but we tend to turn to quick-cook vegetables most often. Our box was packed to the brim with excellent quality specimens including kale, courgettes, red peppers and mushrooms, as well as plenty of carrots and white onions.

Eversfield reckons it should feed 3-5 people for a week – it certainly felt like a lot of food. The company has been a real pillar of the community during lockdown, employing people from the area who had been made redundant or did not qualify for furlough, and setting up a “perfectly imperfect” produce stand in the local village, offering free food that is good to eat but didn’t quite reach their high standards for paying customers. 

(Master of Malt)

Made from a blend of wheat and barley, Reyka claims to be the world’s first green vodka. It uses Iceland’s glacial water and is distilled in a coastal village with air so clean that CO2 levels are actually falling. It’s made in small batches and the distillery is powered by geothermal energy from underground volcanoes. So far, so trendy. But it turns out all of that stuff makes for really tasty vodka. Clean, peppery and with the faintest touch of aniseed, it’s particularly impressive given the price.

Best low and non-alcoholic drinks: Lucky Saint beer, £25 for 12, Lucky Saint

(Lucky Saint)

Lucky Saint has really made itself known in the “low and no” arena over the past year or so, as we’ve had lots of recommendations for this one with 0.5 per cent ABV. It’s a very good, light, easy-drinking lager that manages to retain all the characteristics of a boozy craft beer, so there’s no FOMO for going dry. This unfiltered blend pilsner malt with bright hops is rounded off with a super-smooth, brioche-like citrus note that goes down a treat any night of the week.

Best sleep tea: Pukka organic peace tea, £3 for 20, Sainsbury’s

(Pukka)

There are so many brilliant blends by Pukka – all of which are organic and formulated by master herbalist Sebastian Pole – that we struggled to pick just one. We chose the peace tea, which contains ethically sourced hemp (CBD), ashwagandha – a root commonly used in ayurveda to treat insomnia – chamomile and spearmint to help mental and physical relaxation, calm feelings of anxiety and soothe digestive discomfort, making it the ideal cuppa to create a feeling of zen before bedtime.

The brand’s chamomile, vanilla and manuka honey flavour is also fantastic, with an unusually high content of oils which smell and taste delicious even if you’re not normally keen on chamomile.

(The Whiskey Exchange)

Old Forester’s standard release Kentucky bourbon is one of the better budget bottles you can buy. This more expensive release was launched as a tie-in with the movie Kingsman: The Golden Circle, but don’t let that marketing mechanism put you off – it’s well worth the extra cost. The aroma is of vanilla with a background hint of sweet bubblegum, with more spices, including cinnamon and clove, joining upon sipping. Those spices are initially served in a smooth, buttery texture but they gradually break free to provide warmth and leathery comforts. A fresh orange zestiness helps keep the bourbon lively, while you steadily become more relaxed under the spell of its boozy charms.

(Drinks Supermarket)

You can see why Chairman’s has been so clutchy with this slick, spicy export from the revered St Lucia Distillery. The initial citrus twist of orange peel gives way to a warm wash of caramel, nutmeg and a delicate smattering of cinnamon. It’s the perfect balance of sweetness and spice. Don’t waste this one on mucky mojitos – make like the Chairman and save it for best.

IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.