Something hot on the side

By Susan Birks

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Vinegar

With a whole new wave of fancy dressings, salsas and dips on the table, traditional pickles and relishes are competing by becoming more up-market and sophisticated. Susan Birks reports

Pickles, relishes and condiments such as mustard were once an essential purchase to liven up the cuts of cold meat eaten for lunch and dinner. But times have changed, and so has our food. When dining alfresco, cold cuts have largely been ousted by barbecued bangers, steak burgers and chicken wings, while dinner is more often curry, chilli or pasta. That doesn't mean pickles and mustards have disappeared, but it does mean spicy dips, exotic chutneys and fiery relishes have moved in on the scene.

In order to keep up with the UK public's increasingly adventurous tastes, many condiments have taken on a foreign sophistication. Take vinegar: go back 10 years and the majority of vinegar retailed was malt, in containers that enabled it to be sprinkled liberally on fish and chips. Now the shelves are decked with a variety of flavoured vinegars and none more popular than balsamic. According to market researcher ACNielsen, balsamic vinegar grew 8.3% in volume terms to the year ending September 2004.

Its rising popularity gave Suffolk-based vinegar maker Aspall an idea. It has been importing organic balsamic vinegar for a few years now. But more recently, after visiting Italy's vinegar producers, Aspall owners -- brothers Henry and Barry Chevallier -- realised that the process was not that different to making cider vinegar. It was not long after that they introduced their very own apple balsamic vinegar.

Barry Chevallier explains: "To make balsamic vinegar the Italians use the trebbiano grape to first produce the wine. They add concentrated grape must to make the vinegar, which is then left in barrels to mature. We take cider fermented from apple varieties such as Yarlington Mill, Chizel Jersey or Tremletts Bitter and turn it into vinegar and then add the concentrated juice of Cox apples and leave it to mature."

The apple gives both sweet and sour flavour tones to the vinegar which finishes with a sharp cidery kick, making it suitable for dressings or for cooking.

"We are getting in new equipment to help with the maturation process and to give it an even more rounded flavour profile but we feel it is already better than imported mid-priced balsamic vinegars," says Chevallier.

Certainly consumer tastes are becoming more eclectic, and with many new delis springing up in towns, and with farmers' markets and tourist outlets looking to retail more local and unusual products, smaller producers have a great opportunity to market new condiment lines.

But where does that leave the major pickle and relish producers? Well some were caught napping, including the family-run business James Ross & Son in the north-east, which has been in the condiment business since 1918. It has been supplying the multiples with high quality pickles for some time, but found sales suffering following recent retail mergers and as new and more exotic products stole the limelight. New blood in the form of md Chris Pennison (ex-Black & Decker and Fisher Price) and business development director Charles Penn (formerly with Procter & Gamble) brought in to work alongside the five Ross cousins and directors, however, has put it back on track.

Last year the company saw its first product launch since 1969 -- a gourmet range of pickles ideal for delicatessens and specialist outlets. The range includes Traditional pickled onions in a dark balsamic vinegar, Silverskin onions in white balsamic vinegar with black peppercorns & mustard seeds, Baby beetroot in raspberry red wine vinegar, Curry piccalilli, and Red cabbage in red wine vinegar with spices & sultanas.

This year the company has introduced a new variant based on smoked shallots. It is also looking to expand sales through exports to markets in the Baltic States and Australia.

Relish the taste

Despite the introduction of many new gourmet alternatives, Branston is still the leading pickle brand in the UK's £122m pickles, chutneys and relishes category (IRI MAT Jan 22, 2005). With 28m jars sold each year, the brand is worth £24m and is growing by 3.5% year-on-year, according to brand owner Premier Foods. Following on from the launch of its pickled onions, beetroot and piccalilli ranges and squeezy packaging formats, Premier is extending the brand further with a new range of relishes aimed at the barbecue sector.

It forecasts the Tomato & red pepper, Sweet onion, Hot chilli & jalapeno and Gherkin relishes will grow the category by £2m, a rise of 37%, over the next three years. The barbecue market itself is predicted to grow by 15% over that time (Mintel, Barbecue Foods, April 2004) and a report by market researcher CML from September last year suggests more consumers are using relish all year round.

Dips & dressings

Other categories showing growth are dips and dressings. Dips which first came on to the UK market in party packs for eating with healthy crudite, have broadened considerably by copying foodservice trends. That means dips to accompany more indulgent nachos tortilla chips or on-the-side dishes such as potato wedges.

Frozen pizza manufacturer Schwan's is the latest to pick up on this foodservice trend. It has extended its Chicago Town brand with a line of American-style frozen ready meals with on-the-side accompaniments of Tennessee wedges with salsa or smoky barbecue dip and Buffalo hot wings with pepperjack cheese dip or spicy dipping relish.

New Ivory is another company hoping to take advantage of the growth in dips. The West Yorkshire-based company produces dips, dressings and sauces as meal components for the likes of Geest and Northern Foods. It has seen a particularly rapid expansion in salad dressings to cater for the ready prepared salad market.

"Where there were three salad dressings for salads, now there are 10," says md Geoff Allison, citing horseradish and the Mexican-style dressing chimichurri as recent introductions. He aims to serve the market with great tasting products by keeping them simple and fresh and using high quality ingredients rather than additives.

The company has experienced something of a renaissance since it was bought in 2002 by Matthews Foods Group. At the time of the takeover, Ivory Sauces (as it was known then) employed 40 people. Now that it has added many new products to its range, it has a workforce of over 100.

Like other companies in the sector, New Ivory has had to adapt to making smaller, more frequent batches of fresh products, which requires more flexibility and staff. But Allison says diversification is a welcome challenge.

Related topics: NPD