Not many foods sound more unappealing than a pretzel croissant (and no, that is neither a culinary nor a typographical mistake), but every morning, New Yorkers queue up to buy them at Manhattan's City Bakery, where they are on their way to achieving iconic status – even garnering a mention in Jan Moir's Daily Mail column recently.
Once you high-jump the initial weirdness – they look like croissants but don't taste like them – they are rather yummy. The salt of the pretzel cuts through the sweet of the pastry and although the dough is heavier than normal, it is strangely satisfying and very moreish.
Pretzel croissants are just one of many unusual and delicious foods I ate over a weekend on a fact-finding, food-tasting trip with Marks and Spencer's trend-hunters. No, I didn't know such a job existed either. You get paid to eat? Wow. Where do I sign?
Four or five times a year, members of the 27-strong product development team travel the world to find – and potentially bring back home – the latest food trends. If not trained chefs, they are trained eaters and steeped in culinary knowledge. In the last year, they have been to New York, Berlin, Barcelona, Bath and Tokyo. Sometimes – all in the name of research – they average two meals a night seeking out just-opened restaurants, food trucks and delis for inspiration. Like I said, cool job.
The powerhouse behind the fact-finding team is Cathy Chapman, who was recently voted – in a Daily Telegraph poll – one of the most powerful women in Britain. Her most often-quoted claim to fame is that she developed the first posh ready-meal, the chicken Kiev, in 1979. She says staying ahead of the game is the key to success: "If we didn't innovate, we would be the same as other retailers. We might not compete on price but our products are more authentic and people come to us for new things they can't find anywhere else in England."
The team doesn't think British shoppers are ready for pretzel croissants just yet – but brioche, on the other hand, could be a different matter. On their
week-long trip they've noticed brioche is "trending" across the city, replacing normal dough in buns and doughnuts.
American cuisine is generally not fêted, but out of New York come some of the world's most inventive and interesting foods. It is recognised as being the place where fashions start, and not just on the catwalk. Forget Paris; New York is the city that defines what we eat.
Amanda Hesser, co-founder of food52.com and the author of The Essential New York Times Cook Book, says: "New York has always been a centre for the arts and wealth, and when you have those two elements, you're bound to have an active and innovative food culture. Ambitious chefs flock here because it's a place where, if you make the bet and aim high, and you get noticed, the pay-off is tremendous."
Over a weekend, I ate in more than a dozen places, enjoying some of the most gorgeous food of my life. Cathy's team is regarded by retail analysts as the best in Europe and as a fledgling foodie it was exciting, if not intimidating, to eat with people who really know – if you will excuse the pun – their onions. Dishes are chosen because they are unusual or relevant to ongoing research and are shared out before being discussed at length.
For example, at our first stop, Torrisi, an intimate Italian in Nolita, we were served a quivering mound of freshly made, warm mozzarella. While I just thought, "Nice cheese," everyone else picked up on the chilli and tomato undertones. I felt like I was at a wine-tasting and the only one to think, "Hmmm, booze" instead of "Hmmm, raspberry with a hint of chocolate."
We then had crispy Brussels sprout leaves (similar to deep-fried seaweed) in a beetroot salad, followed by gnocchi with more Brussels sprout leaves – this time boiled and served with mustard sauce. It is the resoluteness of sprouts that I normally find off-putting, but here they tasted delicate and I can't believe I'd never thought of deconstructing their stolidity by cooking leaves individually. The team was seriously impressed, so look out for Brussels sprout leaf medleys in the chiller cabinet next Christmas.
Just liking a food is not enough to secure it a place on the shelves, though. Bacon in both chocolate brownies and peanut brittle featured in several niche food shops and, although surprisingly edible, it would never make the grade for M&S, because it does not like gimmicks. It conducts continuous market research and has a very clear idea about what its customers want. Cathy says: "First, we have to fall in love with something, and then make sure it ticks the boxes for our customers. Then we'll try to find out everything we can about the product. We take samples home, cook it, taste it and refine it and only when we think it is perfect will we sell it in store."
There are other limitations – cost, production, transportation and storage – although some of the food we ate seemed too ambitious to be produced en masse and turned into ready meals. April Preston, head of product development at M&S, says: "We travel around the world for inspiration, not just for products to sell. It's about lateral thinking. We create in our heads a library of tastes and ideas that we can draw from in the future. We filter everything we eat through M&S customers' eyes to see whether it would work for them."
Once a product gets the thumbs-up, it takes a while before it is on the shelves. For example, a recent success story was the cupcake. Matt McAuliffe, a senior product developer, spent a week in New York eating more than 60 varieties, even attending a baking course at the New York School of Culinary Arts, until he found the magic formula. He says: "It's not just a case of seeing something and then copying it back home. Our food is less sweet than American [food] so we have to make it suitable for the British palate." M&S says it was the first big outlet to sell cupcakes and sold six million in six months."
Breakfast the next morning was at another Italian, Locanda Verde – a cavernous dome of a restaurant and a favourite with the sweet-toothed. I still think about the ricotta cheese with truffle honey I ate there and I would definitely maim – possibly kill – for the recipe for its olive oil coffee cake. I also ate Willy Wonka-style chocolates that exploded in your mouth, duck hash, and a £20 burger marbled with caramelised onions. I bought sea salt flavoured with white truffles (brilliant on steak and eggs), honey made on a Manhattan tower block, and a pink lemon. I marvelled at the food in Eataly – a 50,000 sq ft Italian food hall – whose queues stretched around the block even four months after its opening in August.
But my very favourite meal was my ultimate one at the Korean restaurant Momofuku. April told me to order steamed pork buns and spicy pork sausage with rice cakes and both were mind-blowing and different from anything I had eaten before. If I had discovered Momofuku on my first night, I would not have eaten anywhere else. Not even for breakfast.
So other than brioche, sprout leaves, bacon and inventive Italian food, what else is trending in NYC? April says: "We've seen lots of ginger, pumpkin, cocktails, gold-leafing and cider used in recipes – in doughnut batters, for example – on this trip."
Although April would not reveal what ideas she was taking home – it takes competitors eight weeks to copy – she predicts that in Britain the big food trend this year will be high-quality short cuts. A 2009 M&S study showed that the average family meal repertoire is just nine dishes long, and the fact that Jamie Oliver's 30-Minute Meals is the fastest-selling non-fiction book on record shows that although people want to cook from scratch, time is an issue.
Although the M&S team doesn't predict a new cuisine emerging – on the scale of Indian or Chinese – Mexican will gain in popularity, but if my meal at Momofuku is anything to go by, it will be depriving the nation's taste buds if it doesn't devise a Korean ready-meal. Cathy says she was "totally blown away" by its food, and if she could do for steamed pork buns what she did for the chicken Kiev, I will never cook again.
To find out exactly where and what Lucy McDonald ate on her New York trip, along with some handy M&S short cuts, visit her blog http://crumbsfeedyourfamily.blogspot.com/
Tasty trends for 2011
Popcorn: Gained popularity in 2010 as a savoury snack, but we think 2011 will see it go "grown-up", with more indulgent flavours, both sweet and savoury
Meat and fish reducing: Consumers who want to cut back on how much meat and fish they eat will be looking for great tasting meat-free options, that celebrate vegetables and make the most of the seasons
Shortcuts: Consumers are really enjoying cooking from scratch, but there are times when they want a bit of help and we're seeing a growing demand for 'shortcuts', which will grow during 2011 as consumers try their hand at more complicated cuisines
Jellies: Jellies are having a makeover and will soon be far to good to serve only at children's parties. We expect to see lots of delicious new flavours and combinations
Cocktails: Not just to enjoy at bars and restaurants – consumers will want to enjoy their favourites at home
Ginger: Ginger was a great success over Christmas and we think this will carry on into 2011 and the flavour will be popping up in a range of drinks and food