IT HAS become the latest discovery of the chattering classes - a cheaper-than-chips supermarket aimed at society's lowest earners but which stocks ricotta cheese, prosciutto and other fancy goodies at bargain-basement prices.
Lidl is no longer the butt of jokes at the dinner-party table. The German-owned chain has become as popular with foodies as it is among students, thanks to its puzzlingly low prices for avocados, salads and fine cheeses.
A nationwide customer-satisfaction survey by the consumer magazine Which? recently revealed that British consumers rated Lidl more highly than supermarkets such as Tesco and Sainsbury's.
That may explain why Lidl is planning to open up to 40 new UK stores this year - almost one new outlet every nine days.
But can it really be a substitute for the weekly shop at other supermarkets and convenience stores? Surely no store can provide top-end food and drink at low-end prices. Lidl is put to the ultimate test by The Scotsman: can it provide the essential ingredients for a typical summer dinner-party menu and still save shoppers money?
Do they polish the French beans overnight?
A TYPICAL weekday evening at Waitrose in Edinburgh's Morningside - a green-and-white temple of all things middle-class - begins with a quick visit to customer reception where a smartly dressed young man finds me a basket.
Immediately, the care and attention to detail is visible in the colourful selection of immaculate fresh produce: carefully arranged leeks, flawlessly bright citrus fruits and an entire shelf of perfectly formed potatoes of every conceivable breed and place of origin. It's like an international glamour contest for fruit and vegetables. Do they polish the French beans overnight? Do the parsnips have a personal fluffer?
After eyeing up the talent, I grab a buxom bag of neat King Edwards, a svelte sachet of fresh-faced babyleaf salad and a tumescent bundle of firm-but-tender Worcestershire asparagus.
Even the fish counter is well groomed, heaving with fruits of the sea which laid out on a glistening bed of ice - bling bling! There is every kind of fresh salmon available, and enough exotic alternatives - line-caught Icelandic cod, squid, organic trout fillets, Cornish sardines and Cromer crab - to satisfy even the most ambitious dinner-party host. The salmon isn't locally sourced (it's from the Pacific), but it is wilder than Pete Doherty and carries the Marine Conservation Society label of approval for sustainability. The assistant behind the counter politely offers to slice it and skin it, and doesn't even flinch when I lean forward and breathe all over his scallops.
Even though it's close to closing time, the bakery shelf is packed with fresh bread including a ciabatta loaf - perfect for dipping in olive oil. Again, there is every oil infused with every herb and spice imaginable. A 250ml bottle of Waitrose own-brand olive oil is 1.29 - that'll do. But there's Mellow Yellow rapeseed oil instead if you fancy reducing your food miles.
Being a fromage enthusiast, I stare at the Waitrose cheese counter in the way a six-year-old regards the Woolworths pick'n'mix: There's Cornish St Endellion, Somerset Brie, Davidstow Cheddar and about a dozen or so other British brands. Most pungent is the Berthaut's Epoisses, which needs a spoon to be eaten and requires being stored in a padlocked fridge.
The only thing able to tear me away is the wine aisle, which groans with varieties from around the world. As per the brief, there's a top-drawer Chablis from Vaillons William Fevre for 15.99, which would secure a return invitation to any address in town. There's also a special offer of Villa Maria sauvignon blanc from Malborough, New Zealand, for 5.59 a bottle - cheaper than Tesco online at the time of writing. The only real hurdle for Waitrose proves to be the pudding. I can have mousse made from 70 per cent dark chocolate (Gu, 2.79 for four 60g pots) or Duchy Originals mousse made from organic eggs - but neither brand ticks both organic and 70 per cent boxes.
As the clock ticks towards 8pm, I notice I am not the only shopper who finds the opening hours here a little restrictive. Even as the lights are dimmed and the doors locked, at least two harassed-looking finance-sector professionals are dashing about in a posh Edinburgh version of Supermarket Sweep ("Can she find the focaccia with olives, ladies and gentlemen? Yes she can! Ten seconds left!")
I ask Ross Calvert, the store's patient and courteous customer services manager, about later opening hours, but he gently reminds me that Waitrose is ultimately run for the benefit of its owners: the staff. "Obviously, as part of the John Lewis Partnership, we are run for the collective interest of the partners," he says. "The small amount of extra profit gained by opening late would not mitigate the social impact of having to work longer or more antisocial hours."
At the till, yet another smartly dressed worker adds up the bill: an eyewatering 42.91. At those prices, the partners will soon be able to open for just 30 minutes a day and still look forward to a comfortable retirement in North Berwick.
You can buy avacados here for 20p each
EARLY impressions are not good. First, whoever designed that gigantic cheap-looking spike outside the New Kirkgate Centre should be taken down there and impaled on it. Second, the journey between the car park and the Lidl entrance involves sidestepping a lurching drunk clutching a plastic bottle of White Lightning cider. This sort of thing doesn't happen in EH10.
Customers are greeted by a security guard in a tatty black uniform who looks terrifying but turns out to be charming and exceptionally helpful. Unlike Waitrose, the haphazard layout of Lidl is a retail experience which can confound the novice. Merchandising, if there is any at all, appears to be the work of a tortured genius on an absinthe binge. The first aisle contains giant crates, each of which is a tombola of unexpected items including child car seats, ant repellent (anticide?) and self-assembly furniture. Between the doormats, lampshades and cheap running shoes is a stack of Carlsberg lager. On the shelves, beetroot is placed next to floor polish and the biscuits are next to the diarrhoea tablets. Giant fluorescent signs divide everything into two broad categories: "CHEAP!" and "CHEAPER!". Lidl is a store which rewards the patient opportunist rather than the shopper in a hurry.
Trying to seize the initiative, I head toward the boxes of fruit and vegetables, which are preposterously cheap and of good quality. A bag of decent Scottish maris piper salad potatoes costs only 99p, while British fine green beans are 64p a kilo and wild rocket is 49p for 125g. Friends assure me you can buy avocados here for 20p each; I don't see any on show, but it's perfectly believable.
Lidl's inelegant surroundings may suggest tinned food and bleached bread, but the produce is surprisingly aspirational: there is fresh ciabatta for 49p, a packet of posh-looking Scottish oatcakes for 55p, and four-packs of sexily bottled Brahma Brazilian lager for 2.99.
In among the necessities are some deliciously random items, of which the most bewildering is an "inflatable sit-on kayak" (a bargain, apparently, at 79.99). I'm no expert in outdoor adventure sports, but I do hope people are not hurtling down white-water rapids in something they purchased at the same time as their milk and loo rolls.
The friendly duty manager, Gareth, helps me find some Greek olive oil - at the far end of the store, next to the super-strength lager - and wine, of which the best quality is a Malborough sauvignon blanc for 5.99: dearer than the one in Waitrose. At the end of one aisle is a stack of very dusty bottles of pinot grigio, priced at 2.99. It looks worryingly similar to the wine served in the Bmi business lounge at Edinburgh airport...
Unlike Waitrose there is no fresh fish to be had, but plenty of frozen fillets, including Alaskan pollock and salmon of uncertain origin. Attempting to decipher the labels is fruitless because, like so much other stock in Lidl, the fish is from an unrecognisable German brand and the packaging seems printed in every language except English. Sourced from sustainable fish stocks? It could say "batteries not included" for all I can tell. Not that any of the other customers are bothered. The vast majority seem to be polite yet sullen Polish people.
Puddings are equally disappointing - no hope of organic chocolate mousse with a 70 per cent cocoa content, but there are myriad frozen alternatives, including profiteroles and "luxury" Mackies Scottish ice-cream for the bargain price of 2.24 for a half-litre tub.
Finally, I happen across a cheese selection which betrays the tastes of Lidl's Teutonic heartland, overflowing with Dutch brands such as Edam and Gouda. But nestling among the rubbery kse is a packet of genuine Parmigiano Reggiano for 99.3p per 100g - not organic, but an absolute bargain. There's also gorgonzola and brie.
It has taken almost three-quarters of an hour and the patience of Job, but I finally have enough for that dinner party. The total bill? 23.21. I've change from 25 for the No 35 bus home.
In the bag verdict
FOR two stores supposedly at the opposite ends of the retail spectrum, Lidl and Waitrose share an aspiration too often absent from British supermarkets - selling good-quality fresh fruit and vegetables. Try going into a city-centre Sainsbury's at 9pm and getting fresh asparagus, wild rocket and green beans. And Lidl might have been a maze to negotiate and full of surly immigrants, but compared to my nearest Tesco superstore (terrorised by light-fingered, feral children and their cod-eyed parents), it is a temple of decorum. The staff are surprisingly pleasant, too - although there isn't the assistance with choices and packing you can rely on in Waitrose.
The biggest surprise? That Waitrose wine was better value. Yes, you could get a pinot grigio in Lidl for 3. But Waitrose had plenty of well-known labels for as little as 6, its cheapest Malborough sauvignon blanc beat the Lidl price, and Waitrose wine was vastly superior in both choice and overall quality.
Lidl won on low prices, but failed the test when it came to some of the essentials. But with a bit of "repertoire shopping", the canny consumer could mix and match between the two stores and enjoy the best of both worlds.
Could you get away with it shopping in Lidl alone for a smart dinner party? Just about, but you would need to get your guests pretty sozzled before serving the food. For that task, I recommend the 20 bottles of Stella Artois for 6.99 - but hurry while stocks last.