Off your trolley

Caroline Stacey tests meals for people who don't want to cook. Illustration by Louise Weir
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Even if chefs and cookery writers haven't persuaded us to dance attendance on steaming pudding basins, the current enthusiasm for traditional British dishes should have encouraged us to pick them off the supermarket shelves and stick them in the oven. After all, hotpots and pies are not what one knocks up after work; they need lengthy cooking and sociable eating, and with a third of all households expected soon to consist of single people, microwave ownership and ready meals are growing inexorably.

But can the prospect of reheated stew and dumplings, shepherd's pie or apple crumble convince us to reach into the chiller cabinet as eagerly as for Chicken Korma and Tarte Tatin? According to Mintel, the market analyst, traditional British chilled meals are holding their own against competition from "more exotic meal-types", accounting for 24 per cent of sales in its most recent survey. Most popular are fisherman's pie, cottage pie, beef stew and cauliflower cheese. Sainsbury's says that trad British meals account for 15 per cent, compared to 22 per cent Indian and 8 per cent Chinese.

For this tasting, we chose three dishes that are common to all the supermarkets: shepherd's or cottage pie, cauliflower cheese and syrup sponge. Asda sent a cottage pie, and we bought one from Safeway, who had conceded defeat to their rivals and preferred not to supply one. This supermarket claims British meals account for only 2 per cent of sales and was about to introduce some new versions. By now these should be in the shops. The two cottage pies were microwaveable, the others weren't - we oven-heated them all according to the instructions. The same went for the cauliflower cheese, which Safeway also didn't supply; although it turned out that had they overestimated the competition.

The syrup (or in the case of Waitrose, treacle) sponges came in different sizes: individual portions from Marks & Spencer, enough for three or four people from Waitrose, Safeway and Sainsbury's. The Asda and Tesco ones came with custard. We microwaved all of these for best and quickest results.

For a final category, we allowed the supermarkets to submit their own choice of either a best-seller or product they're particularly proud of. We bought Safeway's Venison and Redcurrant shortcrust pie (flagged as a new line) and Marks & Spencer's Apple Crumble ("improved recipe"). Would these, which ought to have been worth boasting about, be any better than the three common (let's not say lowest) denominator dishes?

Sadly, they weren't able to erase the overall impression the shepherd's and cottage pies had left us with. Of most of the dishes, it could be said that when they're good, they're not that great, and when they're bad, they're horrid. We tasted everything blind, without knowing which came from where, and conferring was not allowed. All marks out of 10.

Our tasters spanned three decades in age: a twentysomething, thirtysomething newly-wed professionals, and a just-over-40 caterer who also has two school- age children.

Why, we debated, did these meals seem so unsatisfactory? Is it because we grew up knowing what they can taste like, even if, when we cook for ourselves, it's not cottage pie or Lancashire hotpot that we turn our hand to. Might we be less critical of lasagne since it's not something our mothers had ready for us when we came home from school. Can any of us claim to have had home-made chicken dhansak? Is the next generation growing up ignorant of a home-made stew, having only had hot dogs and stir-fries for school dinner?

On the evidence of the meat dishes we tried, those who are more familiar with ethnic ready-meals might wonder why British dishes deserve much affection. Yet, as one of our tasters, caterer Jane Lewis, said, stews and pies lend themselves to cooking in advance and reheating. She thought the casserole and pies were made with poor-quality meat, not cooked for long enough; by the time the meat has cooked it has dried out. "Overall, it's impossible to tell which of the shepherd's and cottage pies are lamb or beef," and the stew, steak and kidney and venison pies "taste as if the meat's been cooked separately from the sauce".

The puddings, of which Waitrose, for example, has 11 that are British, were better received. Safeway redeemed itself in this category which vindicates its decision to concentrate on puddings and rethink its other meals. The syrup sponge, favourite in this tasting, comes from a fairly new range, including sticky toffee, spotted dick and strawberry jam and coconut.

If there is a future for ready-cooked British dishes, it had better be sweet.