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Britons sandwich lunch between work demands
LONDON (CNN) -- Crumbs on the keyboard. Mayonnaise on the mouse pad. The tell-tale traces of desk dining are evident in workplaces across Britain as millions of stressed-out office workers forgo the leisurely lunch for a sandwich, soda and crisps on the job, according to a new report.
The survey, by British market analysis company Datamonitor, suggests that globalisation is taking an especially big bite out of gastronomy in the UK, where office workers chomp their way through more than 2 billion sandwiches a year, making Britain the most sophisticated sandwich market in the world.
The report finds that cultures across the world attach varying degrees of significance to the lunchtime meal.
In Italy and Spain, where long midday meals break up the workaday routine, culinary habits have better withstood the global crunch, while in France, the three-star Michelin meal has managed to hold its own against a rising tide of fast-food outlets, especially in bigger towns and cities.
By contrast, the UK is seen as emulating U.S. trends, where multi-course meals long ago began giving way to "power" lunches and desk meals. Today, the average working lunch break in Britain is just 36 minutes.
Ordering lunch online
Though that is four minutes longer than in 1998, the statistic can be misleading since many workers opt to either scrap their midday meal altogether or to dine at their desks. Recognizing a market for hungry workers hunched over their PCs, the catering firm Sodexho recently launched an online lunch ordering service that delivers food within 20 minutes.
"Desk delivery is clearly defining the lunch of the future as consumers look for ways in which eating need not impinge on valuable work time," Datamonitor said.
Sandwich manufacturers have been quick to hop aboard the grab-and-go bandwagon, concocting a diverse array of pre-packed offerings with fillings that range from aromatic duck and plum sauce, to mango chutney and almond.
"Despite less time available for lunch, consumers are getting more adventurous with their choice of food," said Sarah Nunny, an analyst with Datamonitor, which published the report, entitled Changing Lunch Occasions 2000
"For the British, lunch no longer means a soggy cheese sandwich on white bread, but can be a choice of a variety of breads with interesting fillings."
Pret à Manger, an upmarket chain of sandwich and salad bars based in London, had just 30 shops in 1995. Today, the chain's network encompasses more than 100 shops in London, Scotland, Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, and New York, where it recently opened a branch in the Wall Street financial district.
'Slow Food' advocates gain foothold
In Britain, where the company sells 25 million sandwiches a year, spokeswoman Lisa Ellams says the shops often attract the same customer several times in a single day.
"In the City you get a customer who is going to work and comes in in the morning for a coffee and danish and then pops back in at lunchtime," Ellams said. "We have such loyal customers. They know exactly what type of sandwich they want and they go right up to the till and often know the person behind the till."
Such loyalty has been slower to catch on in mainland Europe, where proponents of a more laid-back approach to dining have retaliated against all the fast eating by launching 'slow food' movements in several cities.
Nonetheless, Charlotte Paressant, who organises Slow Food activities in France, said the trend, especially in the larger cities, has been to squeeze lunchbreaks into shorter timeframes, sometimes as little as 20 minutes. She has also noticed an increased in the number of establishments offering a one-course, fixed price meal.
In recent months, the French have led Europe's backlash against "malbouffe" (loosely translated as junk food). The issue leapt into the national limelight when a mustachioed farmer named Jose Bove, who portrays himself as a champion of traditional French values, allegedly ransacked a McDonald's in the rural southwest.
Cassoulette with marinated mussels
Jean Chauvin, the head chef at La Table D'Auge in Deauville, in the Normandy region of western France, said he knows Bove and supports his cause. La Table D'Auge -- whose entrees include regional specialities such as cassoulette with marinated mussels and Oysters in champagne -- recently hosted a dinner for Normandy farmers sponsored by the slow food movement.
Chauvin said that while he understands the demand for faster modes of eating -- Deauville already has a McDonald's and several pizzerias -- he also believes in the importance of maintaining variety in a diet.
"One of the qualities we must maintain in the way we feed ourselves is ensuring that there's diversity in what we eat."
Asked what he thinks of the sandwich craze sweeping Britain, Chauvin is quick with a response. "When I serve a ham sandwich with ham, it's because I killed the pig."
But Chauvin's epicurean tastes may not be shared by many of his compatriots in the near future, according to Datamonitor.
"The declining importance of the lunch break in France is perhaps the most striking development to have occurred in Europe so far," the report said.
"Once recognised for their long, family lunches, many French workers are moving away from their traditional past and adopting the approach to lunch found in the UK and U.S."
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