You'd think that if we can source exotic delicacies, tailor recipes to our needs and order groceries via the internet then kitchen life should be sublime. But Jenni Muir is not entirely convinced by the hype

Should you be replacing your shelf of battered recipe books in the kitchen with a keyboard and screen? Is the best way to search for those delicacies that are so hard to find in the supermarkets to sniff them out with a mouse? And if so, which of the food websites should you be bookmarking?

Should you be replacing your shelf of battered recipe books in the kitchen with a keyboard and screen? Is the best way to search for those delicacies that are so hard to find in the supermarkets to sniff them out with a mouse? And if so, which of the food websites should you be bookmarking?

Last week, the supposedly most star-studded, Foodoo.com, became the latest to tempt the computer-literate cook with its recipes, news and views. But what does it actually have to offer that its online rivals don't?

Already, claims that it has "teamed up exclusively" with its celebrity chef contributors, including Antony Worrall Thompson, Gordon Ramsay and Gary Rhodes, who, it was said, would be making Foodoo "their home on the Web" have resulted in faces as red as wood-roasted beetroot. Any suggestion that Antony Worrall Thompson is exclusive should be taken with a pinch of salt - he's as ubiquitous as freshly ground black pepper. He will continue to write his monthly column for Foodoo's rival, simplyfood.co.uk, and you can also check out antonyworrallthompson.com. Gordon Ramsay will remain as resident expert at handbag.com for the foreseeable future and, if you need another slice of Gary Rhodes, he can be found at bbc.co.uk and at lineone.net.

Foodoo is also claiming it will have "unique functionality", but its database of recipes, provision of space online to store your favourites, newsletters, bulletin boards, and grocery and wine sales, are all facilities already available elsewhere on the internet. Where Foodoo.com does differ from other major culinary sites is in offering its celebrity contributors equity in the company. In theory, they could make a tremendous profit. Or not.

According to leading internet consultant Ian Fenn, the food site that could change our lives does not yet exist. "They should genuinely make life easier, not just give out a simple recipe every day or compile a shopping list for you," he says. One day, before the arrival of computers in our fridges that automatically order whatever we've run out of, they will. "Technically, it's possible for a site to supply recipes that match up to all the individual dietary requirements of the people in a household, then compile a shopping list, figure out which of the online supermarkets will be able to provide the groceries at the best price, and deliver them within the hour. This shouldn't be far away - I'm disappointed we don't have it already, but the major supermarkets took a long time to get their act together on the internet."

Whatever its teething troubles - it was delayed by a month and in its "soft launch" phase Ken Hom's recipes were given with American measurements and terms, an East-West fusion dish was said to come from North Africa and links took you to new pages that only advertised their future content - Foodoo shows promise. The recipes are well chosen, and while Ken, Sophie Grigson and John Torode are not the best-known contributors, they are fine writers and an asset to a site that could be an alternative to leafing through cookbooks.

At least Foodoo offers the spicy blend of temptation and glamour that good food writers skillfully sprinkle to stop us reaching for the takeaway menu. Another new recipe site, e-licious.co.uk, puts the emphasis on useful Web features. You can build a personal online cookbook from the site's recipes, adjust them to suit the number of servings required and create menu plans that calculate the shopping list automatically. But only if you can work out how to do so. And if only it were more appetising. It claims that "ordinary people", not "the gourmet élite", are its target market, but it doesn't seem to have noticed that ordinary people love Jamie Oliver.

Those ordinary people also don't have a full-time housekeeper waiting at home to sign for deliveries, as so many online food retailers seem to imagine. The internet shopping revolution won't happen until delivery companies recognise that most of us can't stay in until 1pm every time we need groceries, nor can we wait a week for a Saturday morning delivery slot - we might as well just go to the supermarket.

For all the technological advances, online food companies seem to live in a fantasy yesteryear. The new Christopher's Gourmet Food and Wine Delivery Service (www.clickchs.co.uk) relies heavily on a ye olde worlde theme: its products suggest as much, and so does its assumption that the nice faeries at the bottom of the garden won't steal boxes left in the "porch, shed, garage etc".

Nevertheless, and despite the site's technological shortcomings, it's a tempting place to shop. Christopher's virtual collection of village stores means fabulous Chocolate Society truffles can nestle happily alongside kombucha health drinks, and the range of household and pet care products in the Essential Larder means you can do a whole shop with one company - as long as you're there to receive the parcel.

Another new site, marchants.com, has "good wholesome food from small craft producers that genuinely tastes better". But so do independent fine food retailers, food halls, farm shops, local markets and many of the superstores. Marchants is charging £15.95 for a 275g tin of Amaretti Virginia that really should retail for around £11, and £9.95 for a 350g tin of Jules Destrooper Belgian biscuits that morel.co.uk has for £6.50. Add to that Marchant's £5 flat rate for post and packing and that chi-chi delicatessen round the corner looks like incredibly good value.

Worldmarechal.com, a company based in Lyons, plans to offer British consumers a fine range of speciality foods and wines, with postage and packing for just £1. However, early indications are that it is difficult to find out which foods are available and the site's navigation needs a rethink to make it simpler to use.

Caught up in the hype of the internet, many grocery companies forget that they are just a shop, and as with all shops, if the price isn't right, if we don't get good service, or we have to wait too long, we'll go elsewhere - somewhere that really does make our lives easier.

 

Ian Fenn can be contacted at ian@theuserexperience.com

Jenni Muir is the author of 'The Good Web Guide to Food', £12.99

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