Topping the fast food charts

Ham and pineapple pizzas are now the freezer meal of choice for millions
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The Independent Online
Frozen supermarket pizzas have turned into Britain's convenience food of choice: in the past five years alone sales have doubled to make the easy television dinner into a pounds 241m-a-year business.

In Italy, they are freshly baked works of culinary art. In Britain, we seem to prefer them cling-wrapped from the freezer. A report published yesterday revealed Britons are eating more than 66,000 tons of frozen pizza a year.

Datamonitor, an industry analyst, said: "Family meals are out, snack culture is in, and pizzas are providing to be a choice of snack or dinner."

Strong advertising, changing lifestyles and innovation had contributed to the giant growth in business, a spokesman from the company said.

San Marco is the most popular brand, followed by McCain, Goodfellas and Chicago Town. But supermarket own brands account for 40 per cent of the market.

At shops in the Asda chain, for instance, they will compile you a customised takeaway pizza while you wait. Pineapple and ham is by far and away the winning combination. Anchovies are largely shunned. The stores try to be flexible. "If someone asked for marshmallows, we'd go and get some from the shop," a spokeswoman said.

She estimated that they sold more than 40 million customised pizzas a year and double that in frozen ones. "They are incredibly popular," she said.

Some ready-made pizzas are very good, according to The Independent's food writer Annie Bell. Others are "abominations, pure stodge and very nasty. The main thing is that we still treat pizzas as though the whole point is the topping, whereas the crust is what matters," she said.

The perfect pizza should be baked in a proper wood-fired bread oven or on stones. "It will have no flavour at all if it's just a manufactured bread base baked in an ordinary oven," Ms Bell said "A few of the supermarkets are catching on to this. Some are even importing their crusts from Italy now."

Ann Taruschio, who runs the renowned Walnut Tree Inn restaurant in Abergavenny, Gwent, with her Italian husband Franco, was amazed and saddened that anyone wanted to buy pizza.

"It's just so easy to make," she said. "To make bread is a very satisfying thing. Then you can put your toppings on - if you have a family, the children can join in which is very pleasurable."

Simon Hopkinson, The Independent's Saturday magazine chef and founder of London's Bibendum restaurant, was also appalled at the thought of so many supermarket pizzas going down. "I think it's laziness, it follows on from the microwave," he said.

"I've had takeaway pizzas - we all have sudden cravings. But I've never bought a supermarket pizza and I don't think anyone has re-heated me one."

Although people are buying cookery books in their millions (and he is about to add to the pile with one of his own), Mr Hopkinson believes that they could be coffee table accessories. "I don't think people cook from them much. I think we're losing our way deeply in terms of cooking," he said.

Yet he does recognise the value of shop-bought fast food. "I go to Marks and Spencer and buy the chicken tikka masala because it's delicious. I think their prawn cocktail is quite good. I like them because they're well made and I'm sure their pizza is probably quite delicious, too. But it doesn't bear any relationship to the one you eat in a cafe in Naples." Created by the Neapolitans and better for you than fish and chips How are they made? Americans like to claim pizza for their own but it is most often associated with Italy. Though using bread as a plate has been common for centuries, it seems it was Neapolitans who topped a disc of bread with cheese and tomato and created the pizza as we know it. They were assisted by abundant large, sweet, red tomatoes grown from seeds brought from Peru by two Jesuits. Though pineapples are now a favourite ingredient, purists say the toppings of an authentic pizza stem only from what is available fresh in Italy, such as mozzarella, anchovies and tuna. A proper Italian pizza has a crust of flour and yeast, with no fat. The dough should be hand kneaded or by mixers that do not overheat it, and punched, into a disc no larger than a dinner plate. The base is baked on the base of a wood-fired oven. The mozzarella should be worked by hand. Cutting it with a knife may leave a metallic taste. How healthy are they? Critics may have culinary objections but pizza is not necessarily a bad addition to the family diet. Too much cheese will pile on calories and cholesterol but a topping of vegetables, prawns or tuna is a healthy option. Pizza bases contain carbohydrate, but a thin crust would be acceptable; deep-pan bases contain more fat. Annie Bell, The Independent's food critic, said: "They're nutritionally pretty good." Pizzas fare well compared to kebabs and fish and chips, which are high in fat, salt and sugar content. Fish is full of protein but once dipped in batter and deep-fried it will be calorie-laden.