There are more than 100 different types of pasta on the market in Italy, where the population consumes about 28kg per head per year. In the UK its popularity has risen quickly in recent years, although Britain is not listed in the top 16 nations in terms of consumption.
Many manufacturers of frozen ready-meals for the food service sector are keen to take advantage of pasta's healthy image - it is composed of 70-75% starch and less than 1% fat - and have pasta products in their portfolios.
Most of the eight products tried at the catering facilities run by Baxter & Platts in the GlaxoSmithKline building at Brentford found some favour with Chef's pasta tasting panel, although in some cases they found that the taste didn't live up to the product's appearance.
"Overall I was pretty disappointed," said 2001 Acorn Award winner Trevor Stagg, head chef at GlaxoSmithKline. "The convenience sector seems to have stood still over the past five years. In all convenience products you look for something that is as close as possible to a home-produced dish. Cost becomes an issue if the product is not good."
Lecturer David Carr took a totally opposite view. "For frozen products, I felt that overall they were very good," he said. "A couple were quite poor, however, and seemed to have been overcooked at the original production stage. There were one or two I would put on my menus but only as a base product as they would need to have more added to them."
Nicky Aromando makes all his own pasta for his restaurant near Newbury, buying in a convenience product only if he has a large party in the restaurant.
"Coming from the south of Italy, I grew up on pasta and perhaps I have been spoiled for the way it should taste," he said. "It must have lots of flavour and you must be able to taste the fresh ingredients whether it's egg, or spinach or ink. Some bought-in pastas look good but you know as soon as you taste them that they are manufactured. All the young chefs who come to work at my restaurant have to learn how to make it."
Former Royal Air Force chef David Walklate has had plenty of experience of product testing, having spent time as a development chef before taking up his current job as Gategourmet executive chef at Heathrow Airport. "Generally they all needed enhancing, although I have seen and tasted worse frozen pasta," he said. "These products would be fine in some markets. It depends on the sector they are designed for."
"Although some of the products reached a higher standard than others, I didn't feel there were any that were suitable for the top end of the market," said David Bilsland, head chef at Monkey Island Hotel, Bray-on-Thames, Berkshire. "I think I could use one of the products as a vegetarian dish on a conference buffet."
Host for the tasting, Heather Venables, office services manager for GlaxoSmithKline, was formerly the unit's catering manager, working for Baxter & Platts. "I wasn't impressed with the overall standard," she said. "While the tortellini was very good as a base product, the others tasted processed and didn't have a fresh appearance."
Nicky Aromando, proprietor, White Hart, Hampstead Marshall, Newbury. Aromando has been running his pub-restaurant for 19 years. The 45-seat restaurant and 30-seat bar serves only fresh pasta, made in-house by the chef, who also makes the bread. Almost everything served is organic, as the restaurant is situated immediately next door to an organic research centre which is the source of a large part of the restaurant's business, as well as supplying some of the produce.
David Walklate, executive chef, Gategourmet, London. Gategourmet serves up some 20,000 meals a day from its Heathrow flight kitchen. The company is a division of Swissair, with British Airways as its main customer out of London. Walklate says that pasta is served as a first-class mid-flight snack on all BA long-haul flights and is a regular part of the menu in other sections. The kitchen buys in the pre-cooked product and adds its own sauces and garnishes
David Bilsland, head chef, Monkey Island Hotel, Bray-on-Thames. Set on an island in the River Thames, this hotel is a popular venue for weddings and conferences. The 70-seat fine-dining restaurant is supplemented with a 60-seat terrace bar serving brassiere-style dishes. Taste, presentation, availability and imaginative products are the criteria Bilsland looks for in a pasta dish. The restaurant buys in both fresh and dried pasta and attracts an average spend on pasta products of about £15, with ravioli, tortellini and fettuccine being the most popular.
David Carr is a part-time lecturer at Thames Valley University, where he is working while he studies for a BSc in International Culinary Arts. He has previously worked in country house hotels and restaurants and was senior sous chef at the House of Lords. "Reasonable cost in a pasta which does not clog together on a hot plate and has a long-lasting appearance" is what he looks for.
Trevor Stagg, head chef, Baxter & Platts at GlaxoSmithKline, Brentford. The unit operates a high-quality staff restaurant with a wide range of home-made dishes on the menu. Some 600 customers a day go through the staff restaurant and deli-bar and up to 150 covers a day can be served in the 15 hospitality suites. Pasta is made on site, with none bought in.
Heather Venables, office services manager, GlaxoSmithKline, Brentford. With responsibility for all services at the site, Venables also manages the catering contract. Her ideal pasta product is a quality item which represents good value.