In tune with local fare

By Susan Birks

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Local food

In tune with local fare
Seasonal and locally-produced foods are in demand in restaurants and are selling well at farmers' markets. Susan Birks asks, can manufacturers add some seasonal gastronomic gusto to their products?

As a nation of couch potatoes, the British spend more time watching TV food shows and less in the kitchen than most Europeans. We lap up the likes of Rick Stein travelling the UK in search of the catch of the day or this season's vegetables. Millions gaze happily on the labour of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall at his River Cottage stuffing quail into a guinea foul into a goose for a Christmas feast -- while waiting for the ping of the microwave, telling them their ready meal is suitably heated.

The UK TV audience may not all become gourmet chefs but thanks to Stein and Co an awareness of what constitutes good cuisine is growing. It is increasingly being preached to the masses that locally-produced foods of exceptional quality can be found in the UK and that traditional, seasonal recipes can be as mouth-watering as the most exotic of foods.

This reincarnation of good local grub -- albeit with the occasional foreign twist or ingredient -- is reflected in manufacturers that are raising the quality of their bangers and mash, using pork from Gloucester Old Spot pigs, and pies that make use of local cheeses, such as beef and stilton. Gastro pubs, meanwhile, are enticing customers with rabbit, braised mutton or sea bass in place of the usual steak and chips, lasagne or scampi.

What you won't find is Stein serving strawberries in winter or Whittingstall cooking asparagus soup in late summer. They promote the use of foods at their seasonal best. And whether it is cheese, meat or vegetables, they seek out the best local offerings.

The growing demand for foods of local provenance is a trend also being reflected in the growth of farmers' markets and box schemes. Municipal services, such as schools and hospitals, are also moving to support local farmers and cut food miles. But is seasonal and local supply a serious option for mainstream food manufacturers?

There are those in the industry that agree food should be sourced and eaten when at its seasonal best, but will give many commercial reasons why it is not possible to produce convenience foods on that basis.

New Covent Garden Food, part of Daniels Chilled Foods, however, is one company which manages to make a commercial go of it. The producer of chilled soups and sauces has worked hard to make soup a year-round fixture. But, in addition to its main lines, the company produces a new seasonal soup every month; Pea and lettuce in summer, for example, or English vegetable in winter. These products help raise the quality of the brand and keep up consumer interest in the fixture, explains Mike Faers, innovations and development director at Daniels.

As a trained chef, Faers has seen awareness of high quality ingredients rise among consumers. "There is a trend for simple food, made well. They want it to be good and natural and to use the best ingredients," he says.

He also sees a growing interest in using ingredients at their seasonal peak; something he feels has been promoted by the likes of Fearnley-Whittingstall and others. "Today convenience and taste are more or less givens but health is an area that consumers are now focusing on. They want great food that is good for you."

In practice this means a good knowledge of the ingredients as well as when, and where, to source the best quality. Sourcing is an area handled by the buyer in the majority of companies, but Faers believes it is one in which development chefs need to be involved if they are to create innovative products.

The variability of ingredients, however, makes the manufacturer's task difficult, not least because consumers and retailers expect products with a high degree of consistency.

Faers argues that any development chef worth his salt needs to understand seasonal changes in raw materials and to know how those changes affect production. Onions are a case in point, being a natural product that can vary over the season. "Those sourced at the end of season might take longer to caramelise than those sourced earlier in the season," says Faers.

Small changes like these can have large ramifications when cooking on a commercial scale.

Local vision

Pastry products manufacturer Ginsters,may not boast of using seasonal products but it does use the best ingredients grown on its doorstep. Aided by its location in rural Cornwall, Ginsters has worked over the past few years with local suppliers, particularly wheat growers, to ensure local raw materials meet its needs. Buyer Laurence Oldman says the company hopes in future to raise the level of locally-sourced ingredients from 35% to nearer 50%.

There will always be some ingredients that it can't source locally, however. Even Faers says if we have to work hard to grow something in this country then it makes sense to get it elsewhere.

Some in the industry argue that brand producers have more freedom to work on local schemes, whereas those operating in the own-label sector and large volume producers are more restricted to sourcing from larger, retailer-approved suppliers.

David Jopling of Jopling Ingredients argues size matters when a large quantity of ingredient needs to be sourced to a tight specification. "If a company suddenly needs 40t of individually quick frozen (IQF) diced carrot, they can't audit 30 to 40 different farms and ensure each farmer is providing produce within spec," he says. He also points out the increasing industry requirement for suppliers to have strong technical and microbial back-up functions, which smaller suppliers will not necessarily have.

Cost is the other major issue. Jopling admits producers of own-label ranges -- such as Sainsbury's Taste the Difference and Tesco's Finest -- might be able to look at such trends, but it is not a likely scenario for the margin-sensitive, value end of the market.

Founder of food development consultancy Beetroot & Orange, Angela Mitton, agrees: "Price will continue to be the major challenge for food processors in justifying the viability of purchasing locally-produced raw materials."

But the success of organics has shown that higher costs can be passed on where added value is a perceived benefit.

"With consumers becoming increasingly discerning and having higher quality expectations, manufacturers need to determine whether the quality of each raw material used adds real value to the product they are producing," says Mitton.

Joanne Denney-Finch, chief executive of the grocery think tank IGD, is optimistic about the future for local foods and believes now is the time to go for growth.

IGD research shows that 96% of consumers believe it is important to have a wide range of English food and 68% say it is very important to them. Also, 47% say they buy local food on at least a monthly basis.

Furthermore, as governments call for action on global warming and carbon emissions, and as fossil fuel resources dwindle, we could see the issue of reducing food miles tip the balance of the current pricing equation in future.

So while producers of ethnic ready meals and suppliers of exotic ingredients need have no fear that their market is going to dry up, there is perhaps room for development in premium and niche markets for seasonal products using ingredients of local provenance.

No one wants to lose the current wide choice of products available. But the fact that such products are available year-round -- often lacking in taste or having been flown in from great distances -- may increasingly be questioned by less price sensitive consumers in future. FM

Related topics: NPD