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Discerning babies are drooling over tagliatelle, bang bang chicken and lentil casserole.
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The Independent Online
Mark Hix, celebrity chef, is standing in his kitchen at the stars' favourite restaurant, Le Caprice. He's trying to find the words that best sum up the philosophy behind his latest culinary creations. "What I am doing is developing the dishes that adults eat into baby food. So, for example, mashed swede is very fashionable, and I want to serve that to babies. I also do a little fish pie that's slightly flavoured with fennel. It's wonderful." In other words, he's taking nursery food back to the nursery.

The last three years have seen Britain caught up in an unprecedented foodie feeding frenzy as memories of the recession have begun to dim. Every month sees the opening of a new mega eatery, badly behaved chefs pack out the gossip columns, and cookery books dominate the bestseller lists. But now the foodies are turning their attention to infants.

Hix, who is also executive chef at The Ivy, is at the forefront of this revolution in feeding children, a movement whose leaders believe that babies should be given fresh foods, packed with flavour. Forget potty training, the new middle-class angst is "palate training".

To soothe the brows of anxious parents, an innovative new firm in Glasgow has teamed up with Hix to create "enfant cuisine" for the hip metropolitan baby.

Founded 18 months ago by husband and wife team Belinda and Keith Mitchell, The Original Fresh Babyfood Company will launch its first Hix dish, a fashionable lentil casserole, a week tomorrow. This will sell alongside its existing treats that, for babies from four months old, include sweet potato with carrot, creamy parsnip and potato, and courgette risotto with banana. For the more mature diner - aged from seven months - it offers broccoli and cauliflower cheese, fish with fennel, and potato and lentil casserole. Prices start at 99p for a 100g pot.

The fresh meals are stored in chiller cabinets, have to be sold within a week, and come in smart microwaveable pots. Boots, Safeway, Asda, Selfridges and Waitrose are now all stockists. A Waitrose spokeswoman said that to start with it was only selling the meals in five London branches, but were keen to support "innovation, quality and variety".

Belinda says that the idea for a haute cuisine baby food company came to her after she had a daughter, Clementine, and realised she could only find dull processed dishes in tins and jars. She decided that the time was right to launch real food for babies, meals that would challenge their tastebuds: "Why shouldn't babies have the same variety of choice as adults do? There's research that suggests if you give your baby more varied food then they are better suited to deal with changes later in life. If you feed your baby the same dishes day after day, then they become unwilling to try new foods when they are aged two or three."

Without any background in food, but a sound knowledge of marketing, the pair launched their business, and soon found a company in Carlisle that was able to produce home-made quality dishes and deliver them to supermarkets within 24 hours. Hearing that Hix was treating babies as mini-gourmets, Belinda called him, and won his support for the project.

"The great thing about working with Mark is that he gives you cutting- edge foodie ideas. We were talking the other day about introducing a line of puddings, and he was raving about sweet polenta which he says makes a great fresh pudding. It's the same with his casserole - lentils are really trendy at the moment, you know." Belinda believes that babies should be introduced to herbs and spices at an early age. She recommends cumin and coriander to start.

Like many foodie parents, she raves about the pioneering work of the cookery writer Annabel Karmel, who specialises in devising innovative menus for children. Her bestseller The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner, was first published in 1991, since when it has been reprinted once or twice a year. It has sold more than 150,000 copies. At her publishers, Ebury Press, editor Fiona MacIntyre says that the book has been a runaway success because "parents are increasingly concerned about having control over what their children eat. They want them to enjoy fresh food that isn't packed with additives. We are finally catching up with the French."

Typical Annabel Karmel dishes for babies aged six to nine months include courgette gratin, tomatoes with fennel and basil, and leek and potato puree with fromage frais. Once they are nine months old they can dine on bang bang chicken, savoury veal casserole, and salmon and vegetable tagliatelle. Parents concerned that their offspring have already dined on all the menus, should look out for her forthcoming book, Quick Family Meals.

Caroline Stacey, food writer for Time Out and the Independent, and mother of baby Alfie, says that she has used the Karmel recipes and is keen for her son to eat quality meals. "The trouble is that you make these fancy little things for them to eat and then get put out when they don't like them. But you have to be sensible; soon we'll feel obliged to garnish every dish before we serve it."

Hix admits that his own twin babies are sometimes unmoved by his gourmet offerings: "They go through moods. Sometimes I spend a lot of time preparing the freshest foods and all they want is fish fingers."

What the top chefs serve their children

Henry Harris, the distinguished Modern British chef, has a smalll daughter Georgia and a smaller son, Noah. He started them on organic baby foods (especially Boots which are made in Germany) but he soon switched to grown-ups' food, mashed up. "Georgia will try anything. We gave her some caviar the other day, and she then embarrassed us in Hammersmith McDonald's, demanding caviar. Most children like food they can play with. Georgia's absolute favourite at the moment is moules marinieres. Noah is a complete carnivore. He'll throw himself out of his high chair if you put roast beef anywhere near him."

Fifth Floor, Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge. London SW1 (0171 823 2207).

Carla Phillips, whose own children are grown-up, has been feeding babies in her restaurant for 11 years. She's scornful of people who ask for the children's menu. "They are stupid," she says. "For babies, all food can be mashed up and served with a little gravy. An ideal dish is fish off the bone. To make it look nice, serve it with lemon and parsley, and some carrots. The really important thing is to serve it on small plates, and give lots of little things to pick at."

Moorings, Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk (011328 710949.)

Michelin-starred Paul Heathcote has a six-month-old daughter, Georgia Elizabeth. "Breakfast is her favourite meal. We often give her fromage frais with chopped fresh fruit. She likes apple and banana purees. She loves anything sweet. We always cook extra vegetables, puree them down, and freeze them. Her favourite is parsnip, because it's sweet. A special treat is cauliflower cheese with tuna (not brined, there's too much salt in it)."

Paul Heathcote's, Longridge, Lancs (01772 784969).

Shaun Hill, twice voted chef of the year, insists it's important to control the food your children eat: "You've no idea what's in the products you buy. You get a picture on the jar of a smiling little brat, glugging away. It's the equivalent of battery eggs being sold with a picture of a farmhouse on the packet. Buy organic meat and vegetables, and puree them yourself."

Merchant House, Lower Corve St, Ludlow (01484 875438).

David Adlard, Michelin-starred chef, has a son Mattie, aged five, and a daughter Lucy, nine. He doesn't normally serve gourmet food to his children though the one time he tried, "Lucy's friends complained that the food was like you'd get in prison. It was actually salmon in a veloute sauce and gratin dauphinois." He tries to make things on a miniature scale. His most successful attempt has been a minuscule quail's egg served on a mushroom puree, with a mousse of Jerusalem artichokes.

Adlard's, 79 Upper St. Giles, Norwich (01603 633522).

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