Sometimes, those lifestyle surveys which replace real news with statistics about the popularity of Y-fronts in East Anglia can provide us with a vivid snapshot of The Way We Live Today. There was one recently from Mintel about home entertainment which painted an entirely recognisable picture of a nation most at ease with itself when slumped in front of the television with a plate of spicy, probably Indian, food.

Somehow, though, the rash of ho-ho headlines - Pilau Talk, A Night At The Okra - which greeted the survey failed to capture the intensity of the commercial battle being fought for a slice of this action.

This is a report from Wigan, the front line in Britain's increasingly serious chutney wars. All right, the struggle to mop up the chicken jalfrezi sauce market or to achieve maximum penetration in the mango and lime pickle sector may not sound like much, but consider the combatants.

In one corner Sharwood's, the market leader, part of the Rank Hovis McDougall combine, owned by Tomkins, a conglomerate with a vast range of holdings, including distinctly non pickle-based products such as Smith and Wesson rifles.

In the other, Patak Spices, owned and run by Kirit Pathak and his wife Meena, founded 40 years ago when Kirit's father, LG Pathak, who had been chased out of Kenya by the Mau Mau, started selling samosas at a little shop in Euston.

David and Goliath. A terrier yapping and snapping at the big man's heels. 'Never mind the heels. We've bitten the whole leg off,' says Kirit, watching the Bombay mix - two tons in one hour - come off the production line at his factory in Wigan. 'If I was Sharwood's I would be worried about us.'

He is buoyed by Marketing magazine's annual biggest brands survey, which has just named Patak as the fastest growing brand in Britain with 92 per cent growth in retail sales last year despite, according to the magazine, 'a TV presence you'd need tracker dogs to find'. In second place with 71 per cent is Always, the sanitary towel with 'wings', backed by Procter and Gamble and the very considerable television presence of Claire Rayner. Eternity, Calvin Klein's fragrance for men, is third with 45 per cent. 'It comes as something of a shock,' runs the article in Marketing, 'to find our fastest-growing brand is owned not by a multinational with an advertising budget to match but by a family-owned foods company.'

Not if you look at the battleground it doesn't. Even if you ignore the curry-guzzling couch potato headlines, the figures tell the story. Ethnic (non-European) food market growing at 12 per cent a year. Total sales around pounds 1,200m. Indian food sales in Britain nearly pounds 400m. 7,500 Indian restaurants in the UK, with more in London than in Bombay or Delhi. 10,000 predicted by 1995, according to Patak's - which claims its products are used in more than 90 per cent of them. No wonder Patak's took Claire and Calvin to the cleaners.

And then there's the evidence of your own taste buds. Twenty - even ten - years ago regional Indian cooking was for serious foodies only. Now any chap on a rugby club night out will happily order a lamb pasanda, chicken dopiaza or some south Indian vegetarian dish, possibly even knowing what he's ordering.

Sharwood's, which studiously avoids all mention of rivals, is particularly excited by the current craze for yoghurt-and-coriander-based 'balti' dishes from north India via Birmingham. 'Not since tandoori in the Seventies have we witnessed such a dramatic effect on our eating habits,' says Sue Millington, Sharwood's marketing director, who claims her firm's launch of balti sauces has helped to encourage the trend. She takes the view that the ethnic food market is growing at such a rate that there is room for everybody, and points to the many Chinese, Thai, and other Asian foods Sharwood's produces, giving it a much wider range than certain other firms she might mention. Sharwood's total company turnover, says Sue, has more than doubled in six years.

David Page, managing director of Patak's, is less reticent about mentioning the opposition. He was head-hunted by Kirit Pathak from a similar position at Campbell's Foods three years ago, since when Patak's market share has risen from 4 per cent to 20 per cent.

'There is still enormous potential for further growth,' says David, 'and we have an aggressive marketing plan to exploit that. Within five years we will have overtaken Sharwood's in the area of Indian foods. They are an excellent company in many ways, but what we have is authenticity. It's our products the Indian restaurants choose. To be honest, an Indian wouldn't be caught dead with a jar of Sharwood's or Uncle Ben's. This is the stuff they use.'

It destroys an illusion or two when he produces a 2.5 kilo catering jar of Kashmiri masala paste. What happened to the chef's personal touch? 'Our pastes tend to be used as a base,' says Meena Pathak. 'The chef will add his own ingredients on top. You have to remember a lot of the chefs are not highly educated people. They often come from very poor countries, and have not had the opportunity to travel much outside their own area and sample different kinds of cuisine. Our ingredients have enabled them to introduce regional cooking into their restaurants - North, South, and East Indian dishes.'

Meena's role in the rise of Patak's cannot be overstated. Kirit and Meena's marriage in 1976 was arranged by a matchmaker when Kirit was on a buying trip to Bombay. Among 20-year-old Meena's many accomplishments was a newly acquired degree in food technology, so it was a marriage made - or perhaps mixed - in heaven. Meena took charge of product development. She and Kirit still blend the ingredients for their sauces and chutneys in the factory kitchen. Then the formula is fed into a computer which translates the teaspoons and pinches of spice into the quantities needed for a three-ton mixer. The mixing room, we were told, was the holy of holies, and we were not allowed to take photographs there.

'Although we have highly automated production lines, I still regard my tongue, nose and eyes as my real work tools,' says Kirit. These tools come into their own for what David Page calls 'ingredient sourcing' - buying the stuff. The hard times shovelling pickles in the back room of his dad's shop were not wasted. Kirit has a phenomenal eye for and knowledge of fruits, vegetables and spices, which he demonstrates all over the world.

The evidence is in Kirit's Wigan warehouse - vats of tomatoes from Greece, mangoes from Nigeria, cumin seeds from Iran, garlic from China, ginger from South America, chillies from their own farm in India. All have been selected by Kirit himself, who travels the world like the man from Del Monte, out in the fields sniffing the leaves and feeling the goods. 'That's the difference between me and some of the others. They tend to buy from brokers. I sample the goods myself. I sometimes bump into other buyers on trips because it's all very seasonal, but they'll be visiting a broker whereas I'll be out in the field.'

Kirit's purchase of his Wigan factory in 1978 was influenced by the famed moistness of the atmosphere in south Lancashire, useful in keeping the spices in good condition, but a bonus has been the affinity that has developed between the 200 employees - only four of whom are Asian - and the product. The staff shop, which sells mislabelled products at knock-down prices does a brisk trade all day long in jars of such popular Wigan delicacies as rogan josh paste and makhani cooking sauce.

There does seem to be a genuine family atmosphere in the factory, underlined by the occasional visit of Kirit's retired parents, who now live in Mexico. 'When they see 200 jars of mango chutney a minute coming off the line they have to sit down. They don't understand. They have tears in their eyes,' says Kirit.

But can the family atmosphere survive the further expansion that our growing love for authentic Indian food would seem to indicate? And will Kirit and Meena, who have three teenage children, be able to resist the temptation to realise their now considerable wealth by taking up offers to sell the family firm? 'Obviously,' says Kirit, 'if someone were to come up with silly money I should have to think about it, but selling the company certainly isn't in our plans at the moment.'

Good news. Not for Kirit's competitors, but for foodies and couch potatoes everywhere.

(Photograph omitted)

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