This week a new survey from the market analysts Euromonitor revealed that Britons spend pounds 5 every second on pasta and that we are now the second fastest-growing pasta market in the world. "Pasta has slowly crept up on people," says Mark O'Boyle, UK analyst for Euromonitor. "Over the past five years it's been building up and has become more obvious. There has been a snowball effect. The figures show that pasta has become particularly popular among the well-educated, professional ABC1s. Dual-income people with a family who have a lot to do see it as something quick to make."
Pasta's attraction for Britons is twofold: its health value and its convenience. According to the Health Education Authority, a 2oz serving of dry pasta has no cholesterol, no sodium, 210 calories and less than a gram of fat. It is also high in complex carbohydrates which release energy slowly.
The biggest growth area has been in fresh pasta, where between 1991 and 1995 sales increased by 90 per cent: "Since BSE, everyone has been much more worried about the food chain," says O'Boyle. "Fresh pasta is seen to be without all the additives and preservatives. There is also the perception that the Italian lifestyle is healthier, being low in cholesterol."
The current trend in pasta production is for "quick cook" pasta, with Buitoni, the market leaders in the dry sector, offering their five-minute Pasta Express (complete, of course, with five-minute sauce).
The next fashion we will all slavishly follow will be shapes, according to Deborah Kroliskowski, marketing manager for Pasta Foods. "We've got bows and twists and shells and everything," she says. "This is one of the most significant growth areas. It's a knock-on effect from Italy where they have hundreds of different shapes. And added to that are the colours - red and green - which can make it more interesting."
Fresh pasta fillings are also getting more and more exotic, thanks to American, rather than Italian, influence: spinach and ricotta or four cheese now seem old hat when you can have duck in orange, or duck and plum parcels.
For the true pasta fanatic, however, there are far more exotic things on the market. While large department stores may offer mushroom, squid- ink or spinach-flavoured pasta, gourmand shoppers at Dean and Deluca, the glitzy New York deli, have been treated to huge bowls of jelly-bean pasta.
Pastas to have made it over here include chocolate, blueberry, raspberry and apple spice, but they have remained in the hands of celebrity chefs such as Antonio Carluccio, author of A Passion for Pasta, who makes chocolate pasta with pistachios, or Andrea Riva, whose speciality is maraschino- flavoured pasta.
When the Pasta Company of Humberside tried to start mass production of two sweet raviolis - banana and toffee flavour, and apricot and mascarpone - their market research found that our tastebuds were not quite ready: "The Great British public basically said 'urrgh'."
But while we dream of gorging ourselves on squid-ink twists with a five- minute sauce, the Italians have had enough.
"In Italy, the opposite is happening to Britain, particularly in the cosmopolitan north where people are trying out other foods," says O'Boyle. "They want something different - like meat and two veg." Pasta la vista, baby.Reuse content