Many of the products have been developed under the guidance of such chefs as Anton Edelmann, Rick Stein and Nick Nairn, who belong to Tesco's Chef's Club, and they have endorsed the products with their recommendation. The chocolate teardrop, for instance, created by Anton Edelmann, is, he says: "A voluptuous layered mousse of white and dark chocolate encased in smooth dark chocolate and dusted with powdered chocolate that will make you cry with joy."
The entire range includes some 140 products. It takes in fresh stock and sauces, condiments, olive oils, preserves and chutneys, with another phase planned for introduction in a couple of months' time. The claim is that for little more than you might normally spend on a grim chilled ready meal you can eat as well as you would in a good restaurant. Tesco has said it "aims to take the lead by selling a range of products that reflect the quality and choice of dishes that people currently enjoy eating in a restaurant"; foods that combine "convenience with exquisite taste".
Now the word "restaurant" is pivotal; this is what (as far as the supermarket is concerned) stands for the very finest in quality in the consumer's eyes. It's a fly to catch a fish, and tunes into the modern-day fallacy that restaurant cooking is superior to home-cooking. Though there is nothing wrong with the notion of transporting "restaurant" cooking into the home (although, in reality, it can only ever vaguely approximate the real thing), I would prefer to see a drive aimed at food that is better suited to a domestic kitchen and has the feel of having been home-cooked.
As to the business of taking "the lead" - while Tesco may indeed be launching a first within the multiples of their type, they are, in essence, playing the Marks & Spencer game. M&S, coincidentally, launched a similar, albeit smaller, Connoisseur range last autumn. Once again, it is "high-quality restaurant cuisine for the home", and it has the culinary talent of Albert Roux behind it. This consists of starters, main courses and desserts, and the dishes are as French as Albert: there is lobster bisque, coquilles St Jacques, fresh fruit tarts and daube of beef. In addition, M&S has suggested how the dishes can be combined to create a "best value", "extravagant", or "fastest" menu with recommended wines.
In its corner, Tesco offers up the convenience of dishes such as salmon escalopes with champagne sauce; lemon sole and vegetable roulade; beef paupiette with horseradish; boned and stuffed quail with pistachios and raisins; bordelaise, chasseur and Madeira sauces. There is a fair overlap between the two ranges, I might add. And if you are wondering what exactly "restaurant" cooking is, here it has little to do with post-River Cafe Cookbook Britain. There's not a wood-roasted vegetable in sight. Nor a Thai fishcake or balti curry.
First to the taste test was Tesco's range. And I'll start with the good news. Anton Edelmann has done a fine job of tarts and pastries. There is a lemon tart and a chocolate tart, both with delectably deep fillings that can match the best of what is out there, although, perhaps, the pastry could be a little shorter. The smoked wild salmon is extremely good, by far the best I have tasted from any supermarket. It had a lovely mellow cure and the creaminess of texture you only get with the wild fish. Next, I tested a woodland mushroom soup. This was a very good balance of strongly flavoured mushrooms, wine and cream. But, oh dear, the packet of croutons that came with it. I wouldn't eat these in the height of boredom on a flight out to Sydney - shameful little blocks of sawdust with dried herbs.
The red onion and mozzarella tartlets were not at all bad, if a touch too salty. The horseradish sauce was far better than any other I have tasted in a jar, if not as good as freshly made. The worst were two tasteless stuffed quail that didn't look anything like the photograph. And the Barbary duck breasts with orange and lemon sauce didn't taste of duck in the least and the sauce was reminiscent of medicinal malt. The fruits de mer, which I thought an almost guaranteed bet, looked wonderful as fruits de mer usually do, but had the texture of cotton wool. You'd be better off with frozen prawns.
So it's the rough with the smooth, and perhaps that's all that can be expected. Or am I being unduly harsh? I got on the phone to Anton Edelmann. "Tesco approached me and asked me to help improve its products," he says. "I agreed, providing that I could see progress further down the line, and I can see progress." After working with them over the months, he says, no request to have a product reworked has been refused.
I would agree with him that the positive side to the new range is that where one supermarket leads, others will follow, and any moves being made towards improving quality can only be welcomed. He is also honest enough to say, "Don't let's pretend we're there yet. It isn't going to happen overnight."
However, I did also test a number of products from the Marks & Spencer Connoisseur range, and while there were a few weak points, the food still managed to knock spots off Tesco, and there's no great difference in price. I am not sure how wise Tesco has been in proclaiming its range to be "the best ready-prepared food to ever have reached the supermarket shelf", as the press office told me. Perhaps, realistically, it should be renamed "Tesco's finest so far".