Who buys this stuff?

Food - Bee Wilson on why she has banished Home Recipe Foods from her kitchen

In garden centres, most of the food is for plants. Row upon row of Baby Bio in its yellow-labelled bottles; food for bonsais, food for tomatoes, food for lawns. We cannot tell whether these liquids enhance the welfare of a plant except by their effects: if they, along with essential light and water, give the plant glossy foliage and steady growth and keep it from dying, they are judged successful. Human alimentary requirements are not so obvious. It is not enough that a food nourishes. There is the little problem of pleasure.

Home Recipe Foods is a company that supplies many English garden centres (it declines to say how many). You may not know the brand, but you would almost surely recognise the product: smug jars of jams, chutneys and relishes whose lids are covered in twee, polka-dotted paper hats, secured with rubber bands. They also make "Old Mill" biscuits.

Home Recipe Foods. Let us dwell on the name for a moment. It summons up pictures of kindly grannies selling green-tomato chutney at village fetes, cooked to their own secret formula. The tacit suggestion is that these conserves are no more than the end product of gardening, a way of using up a glut of hard-won pro- duce. There is a picture of a thatched farmhouse on the label.

Home Recipe Foods products are actually mass-produced in Milton Keynes. This would not matter much if the food were good, as with the delicious Bonne Maman range. But the recipes of Home Recipe Foods seem to have been designed by people with no more sense of taste than a cactus. Consider some of the lines. Pineapple curd with Malibu. Peach-flavoured "salsa". A glutinous corn relish and a prawn-cocktail sauce (in these cases, the neat paper hat seems laughably inappropriate). Winter-ale chutney. Savoury blueberry sauce made with vinegar. A purple-coloured cherry curd with cherry brandy.

This last one, although it looked unspeakable, was not the worst I tasted. It was a bit like liquid mauve marzipan, with a thick margarine taste. Nasty but, as I say, not the nastiest. It was more edible, for example, than a tomato and mushroom pasta sauce, sickly with apples, sugar and cheap vegetable oil, and acid on the tongue, alarmingly similar to a vile "coriander salsa".

Tarragon and lime mayonnaise reminded me of lime-scented bathroom cleaner, with a fatty, soapy mouth-feel. But the chutneys - oh, the chutneys. The onion one, at £1.85, was mahogany in colour, suggesting the honeyed succulence of slow-cooked onions; yet the onions were hard, and the date-brown liquor in which they floated was deplorably vinegary and much too sweet. The "farmhouse pickle" was too upsetting even to describe. Suffice to say, there was a tang of undercooked swede.

Who buys this stuff? You might suppose that gardeners would have some understanding of food - of the joys of home-grown lettuces and freshly picked thyme.

However, a garden-centre cashier assures me that Home Recipe Foods are very popular. "That Boysenberry preserve is beautiful," she adds. Yes it is, if you like jam set so hard you could hold a rake in it, and so sweet that the fruit is barely discernible.

For Home Recipe Foods, conserving fruits seems to mean killing them like slugs. That anyone should prefer this stuff to ordinary, shop-bought jam, let alone a good home-made one, is testimony to the deep self-deception of which the British are capable.

When I phoned Home Recipe Foods, it seemed reluctant to talk, although it didn't want me to think it was ungrateful for the publicity. So here it is.

This article first appeared in the 17 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Special Report - Lost souls in the city in the sky