Peter York on Ads: The steam train looks great, but it's running very late

Bird's Eye

Chuff, chuff. Rattle rattle. Over the points, over the points! You can't beat a reference to the age of steam. It works curiously, even for kids who were never there. And the steam railways had such lovely sexual metaphors - into the tunnel in a cloud of steam.

Chuff, chuff. Rattle rattle. Over the points, over the points! You can't beat a reference to the age of steam. It works curiously, even for kids who were never there. And the steam railways had such lovely sexual metaphors - into the tunnel in a cloud of steam.

The new age of steam is utterly different. There are machines which clean everything, or make clothes and curtains hand straight. And there are rice steamers that Japanese can't live without. Steamed food fans say steaming keeps all the vitamins in. So different from the 20-minute rolling boil they used to do to cabbage - no other vegetables had been invented then - in the first British Empire Age of Steam.

The Bird's Eye commercials for their new steamed ready-meals combine both these big ideas. It looks wonderful. They've got a chuff-chuff, rattle-rattle soundtrack, a rooster lost in a burst of engine steam, and rotting red tomato slices running between a cutting of broccoli trees. There are runner bean sleepers and very bright blue skies with gingham oilcloth backdrops. Pasta carriages. Everything except marmalade skies. Very nice art direction.

Then they switch to the product, all plated up on white tablecloths. It's all bright - doesn't a bit of red and yellow pepper make a difference - rice or pasta-based popular fusion food - a bit Italian, a bit South-East Asian with all the difficult bits taken out. I'm not bothered about authenticity - actually I think it's a dead giveaway word for a fatal bourgeois fallacy, but don't get me started - so I quite fancy them.

However, I've been eating this stuff for about three years already. It may be new as tomorrow at Bird's Eye but microwaveable steamed ready meals like this have long since arrived at Marks & Spencer Marble Arch. And I was an early adopter.

The M&S product is cook-chill, but the Bird's Eye one is frozen - presumably you have to microwave it for longer. And because the M&S brand commands higher prices from better-off people - Bird's Eye is subject to the world of the corner "convenience" shop - the Bird's Eye stuff will be more tightly cost-controlled and the children's pieces will be smaller and fewer and so forth.

The branded food manufacturers are almost always behind the big retailers on the innovation trail now. But soon enough somebody'll come along and make a lovely nostalgic documentary about the Freezer Age 1950-1990.

Peter@sru.co.uk

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