Some twenty five years ago, during my days on the Barclays high flyer programme, I was seconded to the Department of Trade & Industry as an assistant financial adviser. In those heady days as an acting civil servant in a department headed up by Ken Clarke,we travelled the country visiting businesses as diverse as tin mines, toilet roll makers, sports car manufacturers and leading edge fibre optic cable designers.They were exciting times and I loved the factory visits when we were invariably treated as royalty (we were often assessing their claims for multi million pound grants) and given VIP treatment.
One particularly memorable visit was to a major food processing company. Before the factory tour we were given a presentation by the marketing team who proclaimed that their future lay in "ready meals". They told us all about how the growth of foreign travel had created interest in pastas, pizzas, Indian and other oriental dishes and how, before long, families would regularly sit down to exotic reheated meals in the comfort of their own homes. As one whose sole experience of cook-at-home convenience foods at the time was limited to Vesta curries (remember them?) , I was somewhat sceptical of their claim but, as we were shown around a vast butchery department with scores of skilled men wearing chain mail gloves cutting prime fillets of beef into identically sized portions, it was clear that the company was putting its money where its mouth was. We sampled the delights of the finished products and dined on beef bourguignon which, to my undiscerning palette, was quite agreeable.
Since then, the marketeers' forecasts have proved extremely accurate and our local Waitrose, M&S and Tesco have aisles full of pre-prepared meals from Orient to Occident and every stop in between. But, Charlie Bigham's pies (available from Waitrose) apart, our experience has tended to be one of disappointment with food that is bland, over salted, far too high in sugar and calories and falling far below the expectations produced by the stunning colour photography on the packet. Until yesterday that is.
With a very busy day in store and little time to cook, we decided to eat a ready meal last night. I spent a good ten minutes surveying the shelves of the local Tesco but, with Marion not being the keenest red meat eater and chicken being a household staple, it was difficult to find anything else that we might enjoy. And then I spotted these smoked haddock and king prawn filo pies, noted that they were flagged with an award and decided to give them a try. They were absolutely delicious. If they were served in a restaurant I would challenge anybody to know that these were prepared supermarket pies and with only around 500 calories each they are not a huge threat to the waistline. So hats off to Tesco. I'm not always a fan but those convenience foods have come a long way in that twenty five years.
This sign in a small baker's shop in Cockermouth, where we are spending a couple of days, is why I am not a big fan of Tesco or any of the major supermarkets. The high street which was devastated by floods in November 2009 is just starting to return to normal but, like so many high streets throughout the country, the heart is being ripped out due to competition from the chains. I am as guilty as anybody in shopping in supermarkets but it is obvious that Cockermouth was once loaded with character and, without our support, high streets like this will be lost forever. Perhaps petrol at £1.39 a litre may push customers back to the local shops. As Michelle and Robert say, they need our support or the big boys have won.