M-way cafe prices are `organised crime'

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The Independent Online
ANTONIO CARLUCCIO speared a mushroom with his fork and appraised it quizzically before placing it in his mouth. As he chewed, his brow furrowed with disbelief. "This is a sin," he said, choosing his words with care. "To treat a mushroom like this, without humanity, is unforgivable. They have crucified this mushroom."

The offending vegetable had been sacrificed in the name of a Full Monty Breakfast, pride of the menu at the Granada service station at Heston, on the M4, in west London. It shared a plate with a sausage, fried eggs, bacon, tomato, baked beans and two slices of fried bread.

The Independent took Mr Carluccio, the renowned Italian chef, to Heston following the Office of Fair Trading's announcement that it is considering launching an investigation into motorway service stations following complaints about the prices charged in shops and restaurants. Three operators - Granada, Welcome Break and Roadchef - each have more than 25 per cent of the market.

Initial impressions did not augur well yesterday. Mr Carluccio, owner of Neal Street Restaurant in Covent Garden, London, and a wild mushroom enthusiast, wrinkled his nose as he walked into the restaurant for a late lunch.

Approaching the hot food counter, he pointed out some wrinkled baked potatoes. Then, spying a dish containing a congealed pink mixture, he asked the catering assistant: "Excuse me, what is that, please?"

"Chicken tikka masala."

"Is that right?" he replied.

After a brief pause to compose himself, Mr Carluccio took the bull by the horns and sampled a selection of hot and cold dishes, including the Cumberland Brunch (pounds 4.99). The sausage was flavourless apart from the faintest suggestion of sage, he said, while the chips were "horrible". "They've been sitting there for hours. When we came in, we could already smell the fat. If the people from Cumberland are coming here, they kill them." He raised a forkful of battered cod to his lips and chewed it thoughtfully. "Incredible," he said, peering at the piece of fish on his plate. "I would never have known that it was possible to have a fish that tastes of cotton wool and nothing else, literally nothing."

Moving on swiftly to the desserts, Mr Carluccio drew a tactful veil of silence over a scone with clotted cream before attempting, without success, to identify a slice of carrot cake. "I would never have recognised it," he said. "It tastes only of hazlenut."

Despite the assault on his palate yesterday, Mr Carluccio was determined to be constructive. He was impressed by the fresh fruit salad and pronounced the ham sandwich quite passable, although its pounds 2.99 price was "daylight robbery", he said. Informed that the Full Monty Breakfast cost pounds 6.99, he nearly spat out a mouthful of food. "It's more than a rip-off, it's organised crime," he said. "It's a plot to make money by serving cheap food at expensive prices."

Clearly, motorway service station fare does not appeal to Mr Carluccio, a celebrant of Mediterranean cuisine, although he did admit to a liking for "Hush Puppies" - or,as it transpired, hash browns.

While suggesting that the menu at Heston could be more varied and adventurous - incorporating, say, a nice fluffy omelette, or a good lasagne - Mr Carluccio's main complaint was with the quality and freshness of the ingredients used, and the way that the dishes were prepared. "For example, they could change the factory that they use for sausages and introduce something with taste and texture," he said. "The fish could be cooked properly, sauted perhaps, with butter."

Mr Carluccio said he would have to be "very, very hungry" before he chose to eat at a service station. "Only a pig would be happy with this kind of food," he said. "This food is not designed to please people; it's designed to fill them up just like the petrol station fills up the car.

"And as far as value for money goes, it's the pits."