Once a much-maligned aspect of catering, frozen food has had a renaissance thanks to its convenience, nutritional benefits and ability to reduce wastage. Will Hawkes reports
When the Olympics came to London in 2012, some optimists claimed that it would transform millions of Britons from couch potatoes into Lycra-clad sports fiends. That doesn’t appear to have transpired – there’s still time, I suppose – but the games did have a very positive impact on a bakery in the eastern corner of Kent.
“We provided all the bakery products to the Olympic village, so we got our BRC standard up to grade AA,” says Simon Cannell, managing director of Speciality Breads in Margate. “They had to be sure nothing bad was going to happen: no one wants Usain Bolt falling over at the 20-metre line because he’s had a dodgy bit of food!
“We achieved that very high standard for the Olympics and have maintained it ever since. We have one of the cleanest bakeries around.”
It’s a crucial issue for frozen food suppliers such as Speciality Breads at the moment. While Speciality Bread’s reputation is as pristine as its bakery, other frozen food companies have not fared so well. The food safety scare around frozen meat earlier this year – which caused nationwide consternation after pub chain JD Wetherspoon was forced to cancel its much-loved steak night at its outlets – was a reminder that safety standards are crucial if frozen food, once much maligned, is to continue its public rehabilitation.
Things are definitely on the up, according to John Hyman (right), chief executive of the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF). “The total frozen foodservice market is currently worth circa £2.3b and growing, as chefs and caterers continue to realise the numerous benefits of frozen food,” he says. “We conducted some research earlier this year as a comparison to the chefs’ attitudes survey of 2014, which showed the development of attitudes around frozen foods. We found that 63% of chefs stock frozen food, 86% agree that freshness is locked into frozen products, and 53% of chefs agree that frozen vegetables maintain more nutrients than fresh. This shows that the use of frozen food products will continue to increase.”
A tour of the elder of Speciality Breads’ two bakeries demonstrates the company’s commitment to food safety. Visitors must don contamination-preventing gear from head to toe, including a fetching pair of white slip-ons that would turn heads down at the local bowls club. But it’s not just about standards on site, according to Cannell; the company makes sure its supply chain has similar standards.
“We pride ourselves on our long-standing relationships with suppliers to ensure no risks are taken, and we only use the best ingredients with guaranteed provenance,” he says. Speciality Breads’ flour comes from miller Marriage’s, which has been in business across the Thames in Chelmsford for almost 200 years. “We’re also incredibly proud to be the UK’s only Red Tractor-certified bakery, which ensures we have absolute traceability when it comes to our flour.”
You must do your research on suppliers, says Gordon Lauder, managing director of Central Foods, which has been distributing frozen food for more than 21 years. “It’s crucial to build up close relationships with your frozen food suppliers. Ensure you know and understand their business fully. Are they accredited by any recognised industry bodies? What does your local council environmental health officer know and have to say about them? What do your colleagues in similar operations to your own know and have to say about them? If possible, have you visited their premises and seen for yourself where and how your food purchases are produced?”
Ensuring you know that your ingredients are of the highest quality can be hard enough, but it’s tougher when you’re sourcing from overseas, according to Tom Styman-Heighton, development chef at Funnybones Foodservice. “A lot of the food we eat in the UK comes from parts of the world that may not have the same food safety standards as we do. It’s vital that chefs work with specialist wholesalers who are experts in the cuisine of a particular region and have in-depth knowledge of the providers and suppliers they source from.
“We focus almost entirely on the cuisines of the US, Tex-Mex, the Caribbean and Mexico. Our buyers are the experts when it comes to these foods; they are local to the area concerned and have built up relationships with the suppliers they work with. Once you’ve found a wholesaler you like, stick with them, and this way you can trust your food source.”
Quality ingredients, quality end product
If you want to get an idea of how you can use Speciality Breads’ products, it’s best to head down to the business’s home on a trading estate on the outskirts of Margate. It opened an innovation kitchen last year, where chef Neil Smith demonstrates how the company’s more than 120 products – including frozen dough – can be used to best effect.
“It’s going down really well,” says Cannell. “It’s difficult to really get an idea of what we do without visiting here.”
“Caterers often seek convenient produce from specialist suppliers that don’t compromise on flavour or quality. Frozen foods can offer a perfect solution,” says James Robinson, product trainer at Brindisa.
The croquetas come in 1.5kg foodservice packs, in four classic Spanish flavours: Boletus mushroom, Ibérico ham, cod and piquillo pepper, and chorizo. “Avoiding the labour-intensive and time-consuming preparation of these indulgent tapas, frozen croquetas also appeal to caterers looking to manage portions and reduce wastage,” he adds.
Eurilait brings in individually quick-frozen cheese from France. It offers a broad selection of frozen cheeses in many formats such as slices, cubes, discs, pearls and crumb, and cheeses from Camembert to mozzarella.
When is innovation not innovation? For Speciality Breads (which has recently launched a public-facing Baker’s Bicycle brand to sell bread in farm shops and garden centres), the current trend is frozen dough – but it’s been making that for more than 20 years. “Since Neil joined the business last year, it’s become more popular again,” says Cannell. The range includes white, brown and multigrain mixes, plus spiced fruit bun and brioche doughs. They need to be defrosted in a fridge overnight before being proved, shaped and baked. “It takes the pain out of baking, but not the fun,” says Smith. “There’s no end to what you can do with it; the white dough can become a bloomer loaf, a pizza base, focaccia – it’s up to you.”
Even chips can be innovative: catering potato supplier Aviko has just released premium crunch fast food fries which, it claims, stay piping hot and crunchier for longer.
Catering behemoth Brakes, meanwhile, says it has seen a big rise in demand for individual portion-sized frozen items. “These are very popular with customers for whom banqueting is high on the agenda, as well as with smaller independent pubs and restaurants who wish to offer something special at seasonal peaks or on everyday menus, without incurring the potential wastage that comes with relying on fresh food ingredients,” says Aaron Friend, category manager for meat and poultry.
Dough product specialist Pan’Artisan has added two Napoli wood-fired pizza bases to its portfolio. These are available pre-sauced, “for the ultimate in convenience and consistency for the operator”, according to Stuart Jackson, director of sales. “They offer a genuine Neapolitan product, made to an original, regional recipe, with a high liquid-to-flour ratio that results in an extremely light base with a crisp bite.”
Back at Speciality Breads, meanwhile, baker Stewart Smith is in charge of new products. One he’s particularly proud of is the scioche, a scone-brioche hybrid made to Cannell’s specifications. “I spent ages trying to find a really good, fully baked scone,” says Cannell. “They didn’t exist, they’re all dreadful! When I came here, I said to Stewart, ‘Can we have a go?’ That was at 10am; by 2pm it was done.”
Brioche is Speciality Breads’ best-seller, alongside ciabatta, because – Cannell says – the business refuses to compromise on quality. “We use an awful lot of butter in our brioche,” he says. “We’re really proud of that but, my God, it causes us problems when butter prices go up. They’re going up again, and when you read the email you go, ‘oh no!’
“We’re about quality, though, and I’m a great believer that when you come out the other side, if you’ve stuck to your guns, people will remember that.” Now that’s the sort of sentiment that will get Britons off their couches.
British Frozen Food Federation