Wrestling for an expanding domestic market worth pounds 200m, the supermarkets are locked in spaghetti wars. Our appetite for Italy's daily staple, which already seems to have taken the place of the potato on Britain's plates, is still growing, and consumers are becoming choosier. Sainsbury's, with 430 stores, claims the largest volume of the pasta market. It has won the industry's Pasta Retailer Award two years running and emphasises that all its 192 pasta products, dry and fresh, are made in Italy. Now its rival, Tesco, with 650 stores, is fighting back. What may seem surprising, though, is that its pasta is not imported direct from the Italian hills, but made in Britain - in Yorkshire, in fact.
The idea of British-made pasta might seem laughable; certainly previous attempts to make it here have often resulted in sub- standard products. For one thing, our wheat crop is fickle, seldom producing the required quality of durum flour; for another, there is the small matter of expertise. So why does Tesco think it can suddenly make pasta here when Italians have been sharpening up their talents for 2,000 years? Well, Tesco, through its manufacturer Geest, has actually invested in the wholesale import of new factory technology and know-how from Italy.
So Tesco's fresh pasta may not be very British at all? "It is British but we've used Italian products as the benchmark, not those of our competitors," says the supermarket's Eleanor Scott.
And Tesco isn't the only company that thinks it can make Italian dishes to rival the original. Loyd Grossman, who has already been very successful with his range of pasta sauces, has now teamed up with Pasta Foods, Britain's biggest dry-pasta company, to launch a range of dry pastas manufactured in the East Anglian holiday resort of Great Yarmouth, a far cry from Napoli.
Grossman, who made his name as host of Masterchef, points out that he did go to Naples to research the pastas in his range: spaghetti, chitarra (a square spaghetti), ridged penne, coiled fusilli and wiggly radiatore. The aim was to make a better dry pasta than any imported to the UK market, says Pasta Foods marketing director Mal Pullin. Pullin believes that ABC1 customers would be happy to pay 20p more per pound for a brand they felt had authority. But, he says, "the average customer can't discriminate between brands." (The cognoscenti, on the other hand, would probably rank the leading brands in this order: de Cecco, Barilla and Buitoni.)
Between them, Grossman and Pasta Foods set out to produce a pasta with plenty of bite (to get the full al dente effect) which meant buying the most expensive high protein flour (strong wheat from the US, grown in the desert and watered manually). They also decided to go for a rough texture to hold sauce better, even though this meant using costly bronze dies (moulds) instead of smooth Teflon to shape the pasta. These cost pounds 30,000 each and have to be replaced four times a year, while Teflon lasts three or four years. The trade magazine, The Grocer, named the resulting pasta Best New Dry Product in its 2000 Pasta Challenge.
It was in a restaurant near Piacenza, the town where Geest buys the high protein durum wheat semolina for its pasta, that Eleanor Scott put Tesco's spinach and ricotta filled tortellini to the ultimate test. The chef of Antica Locanda del Falco agreed to cook the British product beside the leading Italian brand, Rana. By way of satisfying his own pride he also cooked his own tortellini - illustrating to visitors the huge gap between a product freshly- made by his skilled cooks and one made by a machine in a factory. But, factory-made for factory-made, the British pasta performed well, being more chewy, with more bite than Rana's. …