Should pub food be freshly cooked? I ask because something was not right about the tart lying on my plate under a dusting of icing powder at the otherwise agreeable back-street boozer which had been pumping out fine ale. The pastry was too perfectly shaped and the texture too even; it tasted like it had been made in a central kitchen rather than behind the swing doors.
Following a series of insipid meals across the country, the too-perfect lemon tart left me wondering whether this and other gastropubs are knocking out catering food while giving the appearance of being homely places.
According to those in the know, pre-prepared dishes are widely used in the eating out industry, especially by chains. Even the British chef with the most Michelin stars, Gordon Ramsay, was "caught" delivering centrally-made dishes such as coq au vin (or, 'coq au van' as the Sun headline put it) to his pubs. Top restaurants often buy in bread and other specialities, but what should be expected at a gastropub which markets itself as a destination for discerning diners?
Arguably customers paying £15-a-head to choose between eight starters, 12 mains and seven desserts shouldn't expect freshly-prepared food. But, to my mind, this is implied. A visitor to McDonald's or KFC expects, and pays for, mass-produced food – but at a gastro-pub? Amid the irregular wooden tables, real ale and quirky menus offering traditional classics with a twist...
Ironically, gastro-pubs were hailed as the British answer to the unfussy honest food found in French brasseries when they arrived here almost 20 years ago. In the ensuing two decades pub groups have leapt on the concept, realising that falling beer sales and a more convivial smokeless atmosphere make food an attractive proposition.
But the minimum wage has increased the price of kitchen hands and, in any case, it is cheaper to buy in meals from caterers rather than take on a £30,000-a-year chef. Firms such as Brakes and 3663 supply dishes that sound at home in a gastro-pub. Brakes, for instance, advertises 12 "individual Welsh lamb shepherd's pies" for £43.94, £3.66 each – with the strapline "pre-browned and supplied in microwaveable, ovenable board".
Richard Harden, of Harden's restaurant guide, says pre-prepared food is difficult to moralise about because it is so widespread. He adds: "There's an almost entirely separate question of whether the gastropub has been hijacked; whether they've been turned from a slightly inspired take on British classics into McDonald's that happen to be in pubs."
The TV chef and restaurateur Paul Merrett is more critical. At The Victoria, his pub-restaurant in Barnes, west London, he orders Spanish cheese biscuits because, he says, he can't make them as well, frozen croissants for his hotel guests to save time and occasionally burgers because "we don't have a meat grinder or a butcher so the next best thing you can get is to talk to the butcher and select the meat, the onion and the seasoning ... I think that's fair enough."
Mr Merrett feels sorry for Gordon Ramsay because centralising production is "sensible", but has no time for publicans, restaurateurs and hoteliers who ping catering food into the microwave or pull mass-produced puddings from the fridge. "You know they're just shipping it in a big container lorry and it's just wrong." Instead he suggests they offer a smaller home-cooked menu.
Perhaps without a tart lacking a little zest, and honesty.
Heroes & villians
Hero: Open Farm Sunday
Hats off to Leaf (Linking Environment and Farming) for organising this Sunday's open day at 400 farms nationwide, which will open their gates to the public. Activities include nature trails, tractor and trailer rides, pond dipping, farmers' markets, kids' activities and picnics. See farmsunday.org for one near you.
Villain: Food Standards Agency
While it has successfully cut salt and fat, the FSA has been slow to display hygiene ratings for the UK's 530,000 food outlets. In September, after three years' work, it will launch a national website with ratings from 89 councils. The privately run scoresonthedoors.org.uk – free to the public – already has 121.