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The Caterer

Get the most out of your cooking sauces

18 October 2007
Get the most out of your cooking sauces

Widely travelled customers are more adventurous in their culinary tastes, and their quest for authentic dishes rather than Anglicised versions means opportunities in the ready-made sauces market. Patrick McGuigan reports

Summer holidays abroad used to mean two weeks on the Costa del Sol for many Brits, but these days people are just as likely to spend their time lounging on the beach in Thailand or touring the hill villages of Tuscany.

As people have become more adventurous in their choice of holiday destination, so has their appetite for authentic foreign cuisine when they get home. This is clearly illustrated in the changing nature of ready-made sauces, which are beginning to move beyond Anglicised Mediterranean, Indian and Oriental flavours to include more authentic recipes with a greater emphasis on where ingredients are from.

At contract caterer Compass, head of dining development Kevin Harrison has recently worked with suppliers to develop a range of 10 bespoke sauces with authenticity a key requirement. They include tomato and basil, tomato salsa, arrabiata, sweet and sour, black bean, barbecue, Thai sweet chilli, korma, tikka masala and Madras. "A lot of the sauces on the market have been Anglicised to suit the British palate," says Harrison. "But things are changing and people want authentic flavours. If you're going to use an Italian sauce, such as tomato and basil, it needs to be as close to the real thing as possible."

The curry sauces are made with whole spices, which are freshly roasted and ground to give a more rounded flavour.

Ready-to-use sauces are vital to many Compass sites, where staff numbers may stretch to just a single chef-manager in business and industry, smaller schools and healthcare. Its brands and concepts division, which includes Trattoria and World Marché, is also a big user of pre-prepared sauces because consistency between sites is essential. "There are three reasons why we use ready-made sauces: the skills shortage, time and space. In an ideal world we'd love everyone to make sauces from scratch, but that's just not possible," says Harrison.

Restaurant chefs are also cottoning on to the benefits of ready-made sauces with a regional focus, says Karen Scott, commercial communications manager at Scottish supplier Macphie. "Provenance is a key trend and looks set to grow in importance, partly because it allows caterers to charge a premium for dishes," she says. Examples of sauces Macphie has recently developed for specific customers include Sicilian lemon and chervil lobster sauce, Mexican honey and lime marinade, Pecorino cheese and chive sauce and Scottish mountain herb sauce.

David Grainger, food development director at Atlantic Foods, says the retail sector has played an important part in developing interest in provenance of ingredients. "You only have to go to your local supermarket to find Goan prawn curry or Keralan curried beef ready meals. It's about taking what people already know and stretching it that bit further," he says.

Focusing on authentic ingredients also improves quality, he adds. "Using real lemon grass in a Thai curry sauce tastes better than lemon grass flavouring. This also helps to produce a ‘cleaner' ingredients label, which is important with current trends to cut additives and use only ‘kitchen cupboard' ingredients."

Authentic ingredients

The drive for more authentic ingredients can be seen in Atlantic Foods' new Portuguese peri peri sauce, says Grainger, which is made with freshly ground dried chillies rather than chilli powder and lime oil rather than lime flavourings.

Success in the retail sector has prompted Premier Foods to launch its Loyd Grossman brand of cook-in sauces into food service. The 10-strong range includes tomato and basil, sweet red pepper, roasted garlic, balti, korma and red and green Thai curry sauces.

Marketing controller Andrew Gaunt says the sauces are based on authentic recipes researched by Grossman during his travels. "Most of the Italian tomato sauces in UK food service are bright red in colour, and tend to be very smooth - the texture is almost like tomato ketchup and nothing like you'd get in Italy," says Gaunt. "Our tomato and basil sauce is much darker and has definable pieces of tomato. We source a high grade of tomato from Italy and grind herbs and spices freshly on site. We also use olive oil - just as they do in Italy."

While the initial Loyd Grossman range covers fairly basic sauce types, Gaunt says the company will launch more unusual variants in the New Year with South-east Asian dishes a particular focus.

At Atlantic Foods, Grainger sees big potential in sauces that stretch Mediterranean cuisine to include flavours from North Africa, such as harissa, cinnamon, apricots and almonds. "I think Mediterranean fusion sauces, combining North African influences with, say, Spanish flavours will be something to watch out for in the future," he says.

Southern European flavours feature in the Maggi Mediterranean sauces range from Nestlé FoodServices, which includes Greek and Spanish sauces and crosses the border to North Africa with a Moroccan-style sauce containing apricot, orange, coriander, cinnamon, cumin and chilli. "We see quite a lot of potential in these Southern European flavours," says marketing director Martin Lines. "We also see room for development in Asian and Mexican influences."

Food service operators are also showing interest in sauces from the USA, says Grainger, with Atlantic's House of Lords Deluxe BBQ sauce, which is imported from the USA, performing well. Similarly, AAK Foodservice has recently launched Smokey BBQ, Sticky BBQ, and Hickory BBQ sauces under its Lion International Kitchen brand.

Rachael Bouch, food service innovation controller for Sharwood's, says consumers are increasingly trading up to sauces that are spicier and more exotic. "Customers are no longer satisfied with being offered only a korma or a black bean sauce. They want more modern, regional flavours," she says. To this end Sharwood's has developed more unusual ready-made sauces, such as Malaysian Mild Curry, Lemongrass and Coriander, and Singapore Satay.

"Indian and Oriental sauces are complicated to make because of the extensive amount of ingredients that go into them," she adds. "When your menu consists of, say, five dishes that are made with a sauce, the list of ingredients is endless, not to mention the time it takes to make them from scratch."

Regional dishes

Unilever Foodsolutions has recently launched a Sweet Peshwari Korma sauce under the Unilever Patak's brand, which has a North Indian twist with the inclusion of sultanas and tomatoes. "We're definitely seeing more interest in sweeter curries," says executive culinary controller Ray Lorimer. The company's new Dopiaza sauce also meets this trend with sweetness coming from the onions (dopiaza translates as "double onion").

But does interest in new regional dishes translate into hard sales? In a survey of 130 operators in pubs, bars, restaurants, workplace canteens, education and healthcare, Unilever found that almost three-quarters of all chefs serve curry regularly, but old favourites korma and tikka masala remain most popular.

At Tilda, Mark Lyddy, development and marketing controller, says caterers are often reluctant to try new sauces. "When we've introduced more unusual sauces in the past they just haven't performed," he says. "It's our core range of sauces such as korma, balti and tikka that sells. The only one that's really broken through into the mainstream in recent years is Thai green curry."

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