8 Sept 2014
Innovative Start-ups Pave Way for Healthy Return of UK Food Sector
Healthy eating, chocolate pizzas and the humble kelp all topped the agenda at this year's Food and Drink Expo in Birmingham, one of the UK's foremost comestibles conventions, while cider proved to be rallying as a national tipple.
Judging by the number of exhibitors per product at this year's UK Food and Drink Expo, the "on trend" menu for 2014 has to centre on coconut milk and extra-virgin grape-seed oil. There were at least a dozen stalls featuring specialist producers/importers of one or the other, alongside a host of other foodstuffs and drinks, ranging from the traditional (bakery products, charcuterie, beer) to the more adventurous – chocolate pizza, Northern Irish seaweed and flax milk.
Many of the exhibitors were comparatively recent start-ups, evidence that Britain is indeed coming out of recession, with the country's entrepreneurs now putting their long-postponed plans back into action. Quite a few, too, were interested in more than just their home market. With many keen to export, Hong Kong expertise was widely sought after as a mean to access the mainland market.
One such would-be exporter was Yorkshire-based Clearly Scrumptious, which makes "healthy treats" from dried fruits – cranberries, golden berries (otherwise known as physalis or Cape gooseberries), apple wedges and strawberries. The company's snacks come in 30g packs (20g for the apple version) that vary between 71 and 96 calories at time. They are also said to be 100% natural, gluten- and sulphite-free and come with no added sugar.
According to James Feddo, one of the company's founders, its products make great "up-sell" items for impulse-snacking locations. The company currently exports to Sweden, Iceland, the Netherlands, Spain, the UAE and Ireland, and is now interested in exploring the possibilities of the Chinese market.
Treats of a more traditional nature came courtesy of Granny Braid's. A Northern Ireland company founded in 2012, it specialises in premium hand-made confectionery, largely of the kind familiar to generation of Britons – fudge, macaroons, coconut ice – essentially, all the old-fashioned "sweet shop" favourites.
The company's point of difference is that its products are all gluten- and dairy-free. They are also delicious, with the range winning Gold Star in the Great Taste Awards, an annual event organised by the UK Guild of Fine Food. Peter Robinson, Granny Braid's founder, began making confectionery when he was just 12, selling it to friends at school. As with many others at the show, he is now looking at export opportunities.
Another recent start-up was Punjaban, manufacturer of curry bases. Based in Northamptonshire and trading since 2011, the company is owned and managed by Gurjeet and Charanjit Sapal. The two launched the business when Charanjit discovered the popularity of the curries she was sending to her Gurjeet, her son, while he was away at university.
The Sapals now sell their products to 150 retailers. All of their products are derived from authentic Punjabi recipes, with the range currently including butter chicken curry base, keema curry base, naga chilli curry base and a range of chutneys and pickles.
Newer still was the offering from K Hughes & Co Ltd. As of August 2013, this Northern Irish company has been distributing the 3-Omega-6 Dairy-free flax milk drink (manufactured by Good Karma Foods in the Netherland). The product is said to be the only dairy-free alternative drink made from flax seed oil. It is, apparently, the richest source of Omega-3, one of the "essential" fatty acids. It also has the lowest calorie content per serving of any dairy-alternative drink, while also being cholesterol-free. Hughes has the licence to sell the 3-Omega-6 everywhere outside the Americas and is very keen to get into the Chinese market, where it believes the product will prove a popular alternative to dairy milk.
Grannies, apparently, rule in the world of traditional food and drink. As well as Granny Braid's, the show also played host to Gran Stead's Ginger Co. The original Gran Stead first made her ginger drink 150 years ago. Today, it is still made to virtually the same recipe and sold as Mellow Ginger. The Sussex-based company makes five different ginger drinks – including lemonade and blackcurrant varieties, as well as a still lemonade. It currently exports to Eastern Europe, Belgium and the Netherlands, with Director Rosemary Knox saying the firm is now keen to explore the Asian markets.
Mr Trotter's Great British Pork Crackling is another item that looks to be a shoo-in for the Chinese market. Graham Jebb, Managing Director of RayGray Snacks, the company behind the crackling, says: "They've been asking us to get into China for years, but it's finding the right route to market …"
The product, made from 100% British pork (unlike other brands of pork scratchings allegedly) was the brainchild of two food writers – Tom Parker Bowles (son of the Duchess of Cornwall) and Matthew Fort – and claims to be the world's finest pork scratchings. It comes in two varieties – original and jalapeno – and even has its own accompanying beer, Mr Trotter's Great British Chestnut Ale.
A very different experience was provided by Nottingham's Gourmet Chocolate Pizza Company. Helen Ellis, the company's founder, launched the business seven years ago after making a chocolate pizza as a jokey gift and discovering that friends and family loved it. Today, she has nine employees, all producing hand-made solid Belgian chocolate pizzas. The pizzas come with a selection of toppings, including marshmallows, fudge, biscuits jelly beans and nuts.
The pizzas come in 10-inch, seven-inch and four-inch varieties. Customers buy them for special occasions such as Mother's Day or a graduation day. Ellis says: "They are suitable for any occasion when you just want to say: 'thank you and well done.'" The company exports to Spain, the United States, the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway. It currently has no Asian distributor.
Slightly less leftfield than chocolate pizza, cider is one of the most traditional of English alcoholic drinks. Despite its long heritage, cider is something of a hot new trend in many pubs and bars. East-Lothian's Thistly Cross Cider is unique in being the only registered Scottish cider maker in the UK Cider Association. There are, it is happy to point out, Scottish apples in every one of its bottles, with people actually coming to its Belhaven Fruit Farm premises to trade apples for cider.
Available on draught and in bottles, its cider comes in six different options, with its fruit varieties said to be particularly popular. At present, the company makes strawberry, ginger and elderflower-flavoured varieties, as well as traditional and whisky-cask matured ciders. There is even a low-alcohol version.
A rather different natural product comes from Islander Kelp. Based on Rathlin Island, just off the north coast of Northern Ireland, the company grows and harvests kelp – seaweed – in the cold, clear waters where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Irish Sea. It is, apparently, the only kelp grower in Europe.
Cooked, frozen kelp can be used as a vegetable in dishes such as stir frys. It can also be used in soups, as a wrap, in dips, baked into bread or as a sauce. Explaining its appeal, Kate Burns, whose son Benji McFaul runs the company, says: "It's very versatile and it contains six times more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach and more fibre than brown rice." The firm is hoping that even Asian palates may prove partial to kelp.
Overall, healthy eating was – perhaps unaspiringly – one of the most common themes of this year's event. With increasing numbers of people discovering that their health can be improved with a gluten-free diet, many exhibitors were only too keen to cater to this growing market.
Nottingham's Riverside Bakery, for instance, was pushing the message that gluten-free diets can still taste great and offering UK's first chilled gluten-free pastry range – No.G – as proof. It certainly impressed the judges at the Food and Drink Expo, taking home the title of "Best New Idea Winner 2014".
Explaining its appeal, Sam Benjamin, a Brand Manager at the company, said: "The secret is all in the pastry. We've spent over a year developing a special unique gluten-free pastry that tastes wonderful." Riverside's range now includes Chocolate and Morello Cherry Tart, and Blueberry and Vanilla Cheesecake, as well as several savoury dishes, notably a Slow Cooked Beef and Mushroom Pie.
Healthy enjoyment was also the aim of London-based Chi Drinks, founded by filmmaker Jonathan Newman. Newman set up the company after discovering he couldn't buy the fresh coconut juice drink he'd enjoyed in Thailand back in the UK. Chi now packages its own coconut water, said to be 100% pure, with no added sugar, no added preservatives and no chemicals and all sourced from the Thai region with the very sweetest coconuts.
It currently supplies plain coconut water and several fruit-flavoured coconut waters. It also produces chocolate coconut milk and Chi Espresso Coconut Milk, both made from coconut cream blended with coffee powder and added chicory fibre.
The Food and Drink Expo 2014 was held from 24-26 March at the NEC in Birmingham, UK.
Martyn Cornell, Special Correspondent, Birmingham