As a means of maintaining its legendary step ahead of the pack, M & S has introduced 'Speciality Delicatessens' at selected stores, staffed by real walking, talking human beings. They are selling what the company calls its 'freshest idea yet': food not wrapped or boxed but fully on display, and all of it made to be sold and consumed on the same day.
These Speciality Delicatessens, despite those misguided straw boaters sported by the staff, cannot be confused with the long-life slippy-ham, slab-cheese and pork- pie 'delis' to be found in our large supermarkets.
Although the French conspicuously love to cook, they also adore convenience food. But until the late Seventies, the quality convenience-food market was sewn up by distinguished traiteurs. Translated literally as 'caterer', this French notion is an almost alien concept in Britain. Here, caterers do not have a daily showcase for their food; they provide meals at functions.
In France, the finest traiteurs operate from glittering retail premises, and their food is considered to be of impeccable quality, often of a higher standard than the best home-cooking.
It is a combination of what the British call delicatessen foods, such as cold meats and pates, and ready-to-eat cooked dishes. The price tag may be hefty (in recognition of the skill and quality involved), but the food is good enough to serve on the smartest occasions. Even the bags it comes in confer prestige.
The M & S Speciality Delicatessens have some of the hallmarks of good traiteur food. You will see ham sliced from the bone in the manner of that French staple, jambon a l'os; and quiche of all kinds, whose taste and flavour echo the superior tartes to be found in Alsace, not the soggy mixtures of milky, pasteurised egg and lardy pastry that often pass for quiche in the UK.
And the M & S salads actually look like something you might like to make yourself: fresh combinations of tomato, mozzarella, basil and olive oil; crunchy exotic vegetables in a honey-and-soy marinade. They also have almost rustic pecan pies (a pain to get right in your own kitchen), quite excellent Italian olive ciabatta bread, Asian- style finger foods and light, moussey, fresh-fruit cakes and tarts.
Ironically, on the surface this latest French-inspired British food trend suggests that France and Britain are moving in opposite directions. Just as M & S, creator of the smart boxed meal, moves towards fresh traiteur dishes, so the French appear to be going in the opposite direction.
'Plats cuisines', the equivalent of British ready meals, are gaining popularity in France, with a 21 per cent growth rate recorded in the traiteur sections of supermarkets. Boxed ready meals, usually frozen, first caught on in France in the early Eighties. A decade later, after a shaky start, short-life ready meals, prepared by the sous-vide method, are a buoyant sector of supermarket sales.
The up-market French ready meals, of equivalent M & S quality and price, owe their success to that nation's worryingly uncritical, almost reverential, attitude towards their superstar chefs. (In Britain, we are meant to revere St Michael instead.)
Big food manufacturers sign up such chefs for exorbitant fees, who then lend their seal of approval to state-of-the-art box food. The implicit promise is that the chef has worked with the processor to produce top restaurant food in a packet.
Paul Bocuse, described on a box as the 'sacre cuisinier du siecle', has chosen to 'associate himself' with William Saurin, one of France's biggest food processors. Fleury Michon, which pioneered ready meals, has Joel Robuchon smiling out from its packets. Down-market Findus pulled off a coup when it drew Michel Guerard into the fold. Carrefour has enlisted Alain Senderens . . . and so the list goes on.
Of course, it is all hokum. Apart from the name of the chef and the price, the idea that any of these chef-associated meals is different in food or taste quality from others of their kind is an illusion. The cuisine of establishments such as Eugenie-les-Bains cannot be purchased in a bag for a mere fiver.
Michel Guerard's 'tarte feuillete a la tomate et aux fines herbes', for example, tastes much as it looks before cooking: on a round of margarine-based, Findus puff pastry with chopped tomatoes on top, its little last-minute garnish of fresh herbs cannot perform the alleged miracle of transformation. The Paul Bocuse/Saurin dishes, such as 'canard au poivre vert', lavishly labelled as having been elected as product of the year, taste reasonably acceptable, if somehow processed and dull.
But they have a problem in common with the bland Joel Robuchon/Fleury Michon dishes, such as the chicken and ravioli in Ligne Vitale's 'nutritionally balanced' range: because all these types of dishes are boiled in the bag or tray, they simply cannot be served hot enough; the best that can be expected is that the food will be tepid on the plate.
The growing French appetite for all this chef-sanctioned, boil- in-the-bag grub is causing problems for the traditional French traiteur. For the first time, this sector is feeling like the 'small shop' that is suddenly forced to compete with a huge chain store.
In Paris, for example, the fashionable group of traiteurs owned by the restaurant group Flo is having to add to its traditional essentials a growing selection of one- portion, plastic-trayed, ready meals, each with its little serving of rice or other carbohydrate, some meat or fish, and vegetable garnish.
Ranging from blanquette of monkfish with saffron through poulet saute chasseur or fricassee of veal with sorrel, and costing anything from pounds 4 to pounds 9, there is no shortage of clients on the phone placing orders to be delivered to their doors. But these are essentially Anglo-American TV dinners, destined for the microwave, no matter how chic they sound.
None the less, however much the French dally with new-wave convenience foods - despite the Minister of Culture's campaign to remind the population what fresh food is - the fact remains that most French peoples' grasp of food and cooking is sounder than ours. 'Let's try a box meal, some are quite good,' is the attitude. No French person, however, expects live on them.
Back in Britain, the generations who used to live from week to week on cauliflower cheese, lasagne, shepherd's pie and chicken kiev, are becoming increasingly bored with walking down anonymous aisles, selecting from pictures. 'Give us more real food,' is the chant.
It is therefore amusing, and encouraging, that M & S, which made the modern box meal respectable, now sees a commercial future in short-life, fresh food. Its Speciality Delicatessens may well be a clever response to restlessness in the ranks that also preserves its commitment to convenience food.
Marks & Spencer Speciality Delicatessens have been opened in its stores at Marble Arch and King's Road, London, and Camberley, Surrey. If successful, they will be extended to branches around the country.
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