Food & drink: Kings of convenience

Ready meals have moved on since the bland days of boil-in-a-bag. Now, says Simon Beckett, a pre-prepared dish can be as good as fine dining
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The Independent Culture
We've all done it. Found ourselves in the supermarket at the end of a hard day and succumbed to the temptation of buying a ready meal rather than face preparing something ourselves. So what if they are bad for you, taste like something the dog left on the carpet, and have a list of ingredients that has more in common with a science lab than a kitchen? What we're talking about here is the C-word: convenience.

The good news is that convenience and quality are no longer mutually exclusive terms as far as ready meals are concerned. The growing demand for "proper" food means that it's now possible to buy good quality pre- prepared dishes that don't automatically come with high salt/sugar/fat levels, and a list of artificial additives as long as your arm. They can even be delivered to your door, leaving you only to heat, serve and eat, if that's not too much trouble.

Two years ago, for instance, the Grocer on Elgin, for years a mecca for west London foodies, started making hand-made dishes from fresh, seasonal ingredients. They were stocked in the Elgin Avenue store, Selfridges and a handful of other shops, yet still demand continued to outstrip supply. A few weeks ago a second premises opened in Soho called the Grocer on Warwick to help meet demand.

Grocer on Elgin is only one of a growing number of food producers who have recognised a gap in the high-end of the ready-meal market. Last year, Gordon Ramsay launched a range of gourmet ready-cooked meals that can be ordered online. Hand-prepared to his own recipes, the dishes include ballotine of beef with pomme puree, baby vegetables and red wine and claim to provide an authentic Gordon Ramsay meal in your own home. At between pounds 26 and pounds 36 for a two-person serving, they also provide authentic restaurant prices. Duchy Originals, Prince Charles's organic food company, has also introduced a range of pre-cooked traditional British recipes.

"The trend for consumers now is very much that they want to know what they're eating," says Julie Smith, co-owner of specialist ready meal company Eazy Cuizine. "What everyone really wants is mum's or grandmother's cooking; dishes that really taste different. But no one has the time to do it."

She and her partner James Cook went the ready-meal route after opting out of their high pressure jobs in the City. Exchanging London for Knutsford, Cheshire, they opened their shop two years ago, selling nothing but frozen, ready-cooked meals. As well as supplying 60 delis and farm shops nationwide, they now also offer a mail-order and online service, offering next day delivery for starters such as crab and crayfish filo parcels, main courses like beef en croute and honey roasted duck breast, as well as a range of soups, sauces and deserts.

The idea for the business came from their own experience of how difficult it is to combine a busy lifestyle with proper, home-cooked food. "In London you can't cook, you can't do any of the things you're passionate about. It really is just about work and going out," she says. "We started thinking, how the hell are you supposed to eat well when you're always on the run?"

Their solution was to hire a professional chef, rent a commercial kitchen and start preparing hand-cooked meals made with fresh, regionally sourced meat and vegetables, and no artificial additives or preservatives whatsoever. The fourth and crucial member of their team was Doris - the name given to their blast freezer. Most supermarket ready meals tend to be chilled rather than frozen, which means preservatives have to be used to extend their shelf-life. Freezing avoids that, but a home freezer would take well over a day to fully freeze a hot dish. That causes the meat to dry out and ice to form, making the sauces watery. A blast freezer circulates cold air to lower the food's temperature much more rapidly, which Smith claims preserves its taste and nutritional value.

"It completely removes the need for additives, colourants, modified starches and thickeners, things like that. You can just cook normally and then blast freeze the food."

Blast freezing is the preservation method of choice used by many high- end ready-meal producers. Another technique is "sous-vide", which means "under vacuum", and involves cooking each dish in an individual sealed pouch before it's quick frozen. Introduced around 20 years ago by the Roux brothers, the process is widespread in France but relatively new to the UK. One company that uses it is Dorset-based Cornucopia Foods which launched in 2002 and offers delivery of sous-vide dishes such as brochette of salmon and scallops, ossobucco and blanquette de veau.

"The flavour is cooked in rather than cooked out," says Cornucopia director Rupert Cotterall. "If you ate these dishes in a good UK restaurant you'd be very pleased."

It's all a far cry from the days of boil-in-the-bag, and any movement towards fresh, additive free food that's been prepared with care and attention has to be for the good. But isn't there something still inherently lazy about the whole concept of ready meals, no matter how wholesome? Wouldn't it be better if people took the time to cook themselves, rather than simply order a meal to be delivered to their door, ready to be popped in the oven?

"If there wasn't so much pressure on us to live this perfect lifestyle I think a lot of people would like to return to some traditional values," counters Smith. "Everybody's got to work. But there is a large part of the market that's interested in eating food that actually tastes as it should taste. They don't want chemicals, they just want proper food. And if the compromise is that they have to buy a ready meal to achieve that, then they'll do so."

The Grocer on Warwick, 21 Warwick Street, London W1, tel: 020 7437 7776, www.thegroceron.com

TEN TOP DINNERS IN A BOX

Eazy Cuizine

Julie Smith and James Cook opted out of the rat race to bring us frozen Eazy Cuizine meals. Main courses from pounds 2.50. Tel: 0800 542 4727, www.eazycuizine.com

Graig Farm Organics

Organic pioneers for the past 17 years, Graig Farm use meat sourced from family run farms in Wales and the borders. Each pack details the breed of animal. Main courses from pounds 4.99. Tel: 01597 851 655, www.graigfarm.co.uk

Gordon Ramsay Gourmet Meals Claims to replicate the style and excellence of Ramsay's kitchen. Only three dishes are available in the range so far. Main courses from pounds 26. Tel: 01844 262 536, www.In2udelivery.com

Bighams

Bighams runs its kitchens along the same principle as a restaurant's. No mail order but widely available from the likes of Waitrose and Harvey Nichols. Main courses from pounds 4.49. Tel: 020 8453 9890, www.bighams.co.uk

The Real Meat Company Chef-prepared ready meals from a company that puts an emphasis on animal welfare. Vegetarian dishes are also available. Main courses from pounds 3.49. Tel: 01985 840 562, www.realmeatco. sageweb.co.uk

Duchy Originals Prince Charles's company produces ready meals based on traditional dishes. Available from Waitrose, Budgens and Sainsbury. Main courses from pounds 3.49. Tel: 020 8831 6800, www.duchy originals.com

Cornucopia Foods Dorset-based company that uses a "sous vide" method to individually cook dishes in vacuum pouches. Main courses from pounds 4. Tel: 08450 633 699, www.cornucopiafoods.co.uk

Stumbledon Seasonal Foods A runner-up in the 2003 BBC Good Food Show, Stumbledon offers local ingredients cooked on an Aga. Main courses from pounds 3. Tel: 01279 771 028, www.stumbledon.co.uk

Banquet-in-a-Box Set up by a food-aholic who couldn't find meals that lived up to her expectations. Main courses from pounds 10.65. Tel: 01392 679 510, www.banquet- in-a-box.co.uk

Chef on Board Over 20 dishes cooked in one-pot batches with no additives. Main courses from pounds 4. Tel: 01981 500 103, www.chefonboard.com

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