Did anybody, anywhere, ever go out and buy batavia, endive, radicchio, lamb's-lettuce and herbs with a view to offering their family a 'Continental Salad'? And who in their right minds would assemble Chinese leaves, Little Gem, red oak leaf, spinach and curly parsley solely to impress their guests with a delicate 'Leaf and Spinach Salad'? Life, it need hardly be said, is too short. We can do without such refinements.

Except that, now, we can't. Both of the above can be had in handy 80 gram bags from your local Safeway and similar lines and variations can be bought from Sainsbury, Tesco and M & S. They are all washed, so, for the full Tuscan summer effect, all you need do is open the bag and pour the leaves. Dressing might be seen as something of a chore: you do have to shake the ready-mixed plastic bottle of superstore French/Italian/Thousand Island.

Superstore living has got the middle classes by the throat. Those bags alone have transformed the bourgeois conception of the word 'salad' from something you bought, assembled and prepared to something you pour. And, ever since people started eating M & S plaice florentine or salmon en croute and such, preparation of 'gourmet' dishes has involved no more than a microwave and a plate. .

Home-made salmon en croute? Why bother? People will just assume it's slightly dodgy M & S. The dish is compromised by association. Sad maybe, but who can deny that capitalism has delivered? You want haute cuisine for the masses? Well, here it is.

The speed of this culinary debauch has been breathtaking. It all more or less happened in the Eighties, because three supermarket groups - Sainsbury, Tesco and Safeway - desperately needed to sucker the middle classes into paying more so that they could eat smart food without any loss of work hours or quality time with the kids.

It turns out, there is almost no limit to the richer customer's desire to avoid kitchen work. Garlic bread consists of nothing more than bread smeared with garlic and butter. Yet the supermarket companies now offer pre-prepared garlic bread as if we had all suddenly lost the use of our thumbs.

Through the Eighties, superstores had the time of their lives. There was plenty of room for expansion and for upgrading smaller supermarkets to proper superstores - defined as anything with a floor area greater than 20,000 square feet. There were still lots of cute High Street butchers, bakers and grocers to wipe out and people were getting richer - and lazier.

Best of all, there was inflation. Superstores love inflation. When prices go up they instantly charge their customers more. But they don't pay their suppliers for up to three months and they pay them at the pre-inflation prices, giving themselves instant stock profits. It took Albert Gubay, founder of Kwik Save, to realise that this meant you could sell goods at lower than cost and still make money.

The balancing act was all about class. The three big groups are too big to pitch themselves at one population sector. They have to sell baked beans and white sliced bread to the working classes at low profit margins and compensate by selling pesto, ciabatta, and garlic bread to the middle classes at high margins. In terms of brand image this required Tesco to trade up - its starting point was far too down-market - and Sainsbury to trade down slightly. Safeway occupies a bland, vaguely mid-Atlantic slot. But, for them all, the big selling point was: it is all here in one place with car-parking and zero hassle. The family could provision itself for a week in one hour.

This was all so well done - possibly, it has been suggested, aided by the operation of a loose cartel - that British food retailing became the most profitable in the world. Net margins of 8 per cent compared with 2 to 4 per cent in other countries. The power of the big three became overwhelming. They dominated their suppliers by getting them to pay for shelf space - eye level and aisle corners where trolleys slow down command the highest premiums - and by plundering their innovations for the benefit of their own-brand labels.

The overall effect of this was that British supermarkets became rather ritzy places. 'They look like palaces,' said Albert Gubay, commenting on Sainsbury stores, 'so they charge palace prices.' Tesco and Sainsbury would spend pounds 30m on a new superstore, a sum that would usually involve 'planning gain' goodies for the local council and a high degree of depressing architectural superfluity.

But, last year, all this began to look precarious. A range of new pressures emerged. Asda was rapidly recovering from near-fatal troubles and providing new competition. Saturation coverage of the country was becoming an increasingly real prospect. Planning strategy had changed. Government no longer wanted superstores sucking life out of town centres and, after the Rio environmental summit in 1992, even wanted to discourage people from driving to do their shopping. There was, horror, virtually no inflation. There had been a long recession. And, finally, European and American hard discounters - Costco, Aldi, Netto - were moving in to detonate the cosy British triopoly.

The companies announced scaled-down spending programmes, job losses and a price war. Sainsbury launched its 'Essential for the Essentials' campaign and Tesco came up with a new Tesco Value range. The Big Easy of the Eighties is over.

It is the hard discounters that raise the most fundamental question. They are known by the deceptively amiable title of Lads - Limited Assortment Discounters. An average superstore may carry 15,000 different lines, a discounter only carries around 500. These will be basic - beans, bread, butter, sugar - and they will be sold at close to cost in spartan, warehouse conditions. The new European invaders are spreading in.

'The place is ripe for a killing,' said one German retail analyst with a touch of historical insensitivity, 'British food retailing is ossified. The consequences of a long oligopoly . . . has been a lack of innovation, especially in discounting.'

Now, if you wish to be utterly rational about your shopping, you would buy the basics at a discounter and the oven-ready garlic bread at the superstore. Such a strategy would, if widely pursued, put the big three out of business - or shrink them radically - since around 60 per cent of their food sales consists of these basics. This obliges superstores to go some way to compete with the discounters and suffer the inevitable margin implications.

But nobody shops so rationally. The great strength of the superstore palaces is that they have accustomed us to a culture of such apparent effortlessness that even two-stop shopping seems an insurmountable hurdle compared with the more usual one-stop. They have carefully cuddled us into massively reducing the amount of time and effort we devote to food selection and preparation. They have, to some extent, even anaesthetised our price sensitivities - we may note the cost of a trolley load but seldom that of an individual item.

All of which probably means that the salad bag will win. We are hopelessly addicted to instant Tuscan suppers or microwaveable tandoori. It is generally bland stuff, but the time-cost of making it better is too high and, anyway, the greengrocer where you might have been able to buy your own batavia has probably long gone, defeated by superstore competition.

But there are a few authentic pleasures left among the narrowing options in our foody lives. Waitrose does a great line in fish, Safeway puts chopped vegetables into a plastic tray and wittily calls them 'Farmhouse-style vegetables for soup' and, don't tell the middle classes, Tesco food is now better than Sainsbury. But avoid their chicken kiev en croute, believe me, a total, rubberised clunker.

(Photograph omitted)