Success on a stick; eating in

For the Oscars of the supermarket world, dozens of judges test hundreds of products. This year's winner can be viewed as the creme de la creme of ready meals, says Michael Bateman
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A KEBAB of scallops and bacon is this year's winner of the best supermarket product of the year. Earlier this week, on the strength of one such kebab, Tesco picked up the Gold Q award in the British Quality Food and Drink Awards, the Oscars of the supermarketing world, which are sponsored by SuperMarketing magazine.

You might wonder how such a modest dish could outpace the best that these huge conglomerates have to offer. The judging criteria look to reward price, value, quality and inspiration. How could a few scallops on sticks qualify? Well, said the judges: because they were fresher and better and cheaper than you could find in most fishmongers, with the added value that you can cook them in minutes and, after eating, declare them as excellent a dish as you can get at three times the price in a good restaurant.

Several hundred supermarket executives and buyers - from Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury, Safeway, Asda et al - piled into the Dorchester for the awards, frantically cheering their own successes. Over 20 years the awards have developed from a modest trade event to something more high-profile, thanks to the aspirational chairman of the judges, Joe Hyam, who recruits a highly critical panel from outside supermarkets, including expert food writers such as Claudia Roden, restaurant critics such as Fay Maschler, top chefs such as Brian Turner, chairman of the British Academie Culinaire, and numerous specialists on wines, chocolate, cheese, health and nutrition.

It's not too difficult to pick winners in the dozen main categories (see overleaf). But how do you select an overall winner? How do you choose between an organic cider and a raspberry Pavlova, or a farmhouse Wensleydale and a can of beer with a widget? "It's less of a problem than you might think," says Hyam. "We're simply looking for the one product which above all most deserves an accolade."

This year, the final contenders ranged improbably from those tasty scallops from the Clyde to a wholehearted and gutsy Cornish pasty, a piquant packet of parmesan shavings and rocket leaves, and a majestic monster of a choc ice.

I have followed the winners over recent years and the judging's uncompromising stance has produced some marvellous successes. Marks and Spencer took the Gold Q in 1995 with a crumbly tarte aux cerises. But the glory really belonged to the Welsh bakery company who made it, and declined to bow to requests from Marks & Spencer to make it more "cosmetic" because the cherries were bleeding into the pie. "That's because they are the best cherries," replied the bakery indignantly.

Two years ago, a smallish company, Oscar Mayer in Chard, Somerset, won a Gold Q for Waitrose for its leek and bacon lasagnette. It turned out that not only had their technical head, Steven Poole, had a training in Michelin-starred restaurants, but he retains no fewer than 30 professional chefs in his factory. Quality will out.

Sainsbury's won the Gold Q last year with a spicy laksa of soupy noodles. It was billed as a triumph for Sainsbury's food commandos, known as the Innovations Team, who storm the world (in this case, Malaysia) hunting down new products. Steven Parkins, Sainsbury's skilful young development chef, was frank enough to say that his former boss, Peter Gordon of The Sugar Club, had already introduced this dish to Britain. But all credit to Steven for translating it into a winning supermarket product.

And so to this year's Gold Q. I spoke to Pam Hamilton, account manager at Dawnfresh Foods, in Lanarkshire, after she'd heard that the scallop and bacon brochette they make for Tesco had been shortlisted. She explained that freshness is the key to the winning product. Dawnfresh scallops are collected by divers off Mallaig, or dredged in the Clyde by day-boats. They are turned round immediately, converted into ready-to-cook kebabs, and in the shops the next day.

"Shellfish and bacon, scallops and bacon, are not new ideas. It's a very simple concept," says Pam. "But we had to have bacon which cooked in the very short time it takes to grill a scallop. We tested thousands of thicknesses of bacon, before we settled on a very thin strip of slightly streaky bacon, lightly smoked to contrast with the sweetness of the scallops. The kebab is served with lemon wedges and a simple dressing of olive oil and sunflower oil and a bit of parsley."