On Thursday, in news that shook the world of children’s parties, office birthdays, and millennials, Colin the Caterpillar went to war. M&S has filed an intellectual property claim with the High Court against Aldi, in an effort to protect their chocolate-covered swiss roll celebration cake, and demanded that Aldi stop selling their copy cat-erpillar, Cuthbert.
Like Prince, Madonna and Boris, in birthday party circles, Colin needs no second name, with over 15 million sales under his belt during his 30 year life. I’m only slightly older than Colin, and he’s been present at perhaps half the birthday parties I’ve ever attended, plus more than one wedding. When my best friend was stuck in a maternity ward in Sweden during the pandemic after a difficult birth, it was Colin we sent to the hospital as comfort.
Such is the cult of Colin that M&S created a female version – Connie the Caterpillar – who sports a pink bow. There are special wedding versions of Colin and Connie, complete with top hat and veil. Colin’s major birthdays have been marked with limited edition cakes. (I find the idea of celebrating Colin’s birthday unsettling, because it begs the question: what is Colin having as a cake?). You can also now buy Colin in mini-roll form, as gummy sweets and sour sweets, and, hauntingly, stand-alone Colin faces. The Colin canon is broad and terrifying.
The first imitator arrived in 2011 (probably Sainsburys, but Asda wasn’t far behind), and the other major supermarkets quickly followed. For the most part, the caterpillars are extremely similar: all are chocolate Swiss roll sponge with chocolate buttercream, and a chocolate covering, decorated with sweets. All the caterpillars have shoes extending down the length of their bodies, and a cartoon face that could generously be described as sort-of reminiscent of a caterpillar, or maybe a train that has come to life.
The packaging is near-identical: long, rectangular green boxes with cellophane windows showing off. Most of the caterpillars have similarly alliterative names – Clyde, Cecil, Charlie, Curlie, Cuthbert – with notable exceptions of Morris the Caterpillar from Morrisons and Wiggles the Caterpillar from Sainsburys.
So why now? Why Aldi? Why Cuthbert?
Perhaps, some cynical sorts have suggested, this is not in fact the landmark case of intellectual property law it purports to be, but in fact a PR stunt confected by the rival supermarkets. Certainly, Aldi’s social media over the weekend hasn’t suggested that they’re quaking in their Caterpillar boots. Interestingly, the only supermarket I visited where a caterpillar cake was nowhere to be seen was Aldi: had they been ripped from the shelves pre-empting a cease and desist order, or had the media storm in a teacup created a public demand that outstripped supply?
When I announced to Twitter that I’d be testing as many of the supermarket caterpillar cakes that I could get my hands on, many assumed I was still in my former career, and doing so as a barrister (a small but insistent minority thought it was simply a way to pass the time, and urged me to get a life). But in fact, I am here in my current guise as food writer and cake-maker to rigorously examine the facts, consider the issues faithfully, and deliver a verdict according to the evidence.
As befits an experiment of this gravity, this was a blind taste test (and, by the time I’d ferried all the anonymous cake slices over to the table and made myself a cup of tea, it was effectively double-blind). Our criteria covered taste, texture, moistness, accessories, presentation and cut-ability – something crucial for a long cake designed to be served at children’s parties. Marked out of 10, the scores were collated, and the results are in. So who is the king of caterpillars?
Morrisons: Morris the Caterpillar (£6)
While Morrisons seem to have missed the alliterative memo on their caterpillar name, the cake itself is pretty good, coming at second and third place with our tasters. It’s not as soft as Colin, but tastes nice, and authentically of chocolate. It cuts pretty cleanly, and Morris’ accessories – white chocolate shoes, Smarties, hundreds and thousands – were all pleasant. 7/10
Sainsburys: Wiggles the Caterpillar (£6)
First impressions of Wiggles were good: it cut cleanly, creating a neat slice, and it boasted a large white chocolate face, unlike the cheaper looking fondant ones. The sponge was dry, although this was mitigated by the generous amount of buttercream. One of our testers thought the overall taste was artificial, but broadly this was an enjoyable rendition of the caterpillar classic. However, I’d question the optimism of it being able to serve the suggested 14 portions. 6/10
Asda: Clyde the Caterpillar (£5.92)
This is a moister cake than some of the others, with a good, non-artificial chocolate flavour throughout, with bubbles of buttercream just below the surface of the chocolate covering. But the covering itself was too crisp and thin, meaning that it was difficult to cut, with the covering shattering when portioned. And with our tasters’ unanimous preference for chocolate face and shoes, Clyde’s fondant versions weren’t ideal. Sadly, as this is a taste test, no additional points can be given for the pleasing fact that Clyde’s girlfriend in Asda’s range is called Bonnie, and the free-from variety is called Frieda. 6/10
Tesco: Curly the Caterpillar (£6)
Well, Curly really divided the judges here. Curly is the only caterpillar to sport fruity sweets as his decoration: one of our tasters liked these so much, Curly shot up to second place, behind Colin, but another taster gave his accessories 0/10 with the comment ‘I hate this in my mouth’. The buttercream was slightly gritty compared to other caterpillars tested, but really, Curly lives or dies (bleak) by whether you as a cake-eater like fruity sweets – but the cake itself is a perfectly nice Swiss roll. 5/10
Co-op: Curious the Caterpillar (£6)
Poor old Curious didn’t come out of this well, sitting in last place with both of our testers: he collapsed on cutting which made him difficult to portion, and has a strange background taste that we couldn’t quite put our finger on, save for it being artificial - a mystery which I suppose befits his name. His shoes and face are made of orange fondant, and his face is unnervingly reminiscent of Thomas the Tank Engine. Sorry, Curious, but you’re not for us. 4/10
WINNER: Marks and Spencer: Colin the Caterpillar (£7)
I know, I know. I’m as disappointed as you are that the original, the most expensive, is in fact the best. It’s predictable! It’s boring! But it’s true. The M&S Colin is streets ahead of the others we tried, with one of my testers declaring ‘this is a man amongst boys’ and another explaining, helpfully, that it tastes the same as the other caterpillars ‘...but better’.
But actually, that’s kind of the point: the chocolate tastes like real chocolate, rather than chocolate-flavoured covering, the sponge is still chocolate sponge, but it’s markedly light and soft, and the buttercream is smooth and generous. The boots are larger than other brands, and made of solid white chocolate. And it cuts absolutely perfectly. 10/10
So there you have it, Colin, the original chocolate celebration cake caterpillar was the run-away winner with all of our testers. Can it be bettered by Aldi? Perhaps we’ll never know, if M&S get their way in the courts. What I can say is this: I gave away 5 of the 6 caterpillars that we tested, but I kept Colin – which probably tells you everything you need to know.