From the deep, umami taste of a noodle broth to traditional flavours with a twist, it's easy to entice diners with readymade soups. Richard McComb looks at the rise and rise of one of Britain's favourite dishes
A typical British menu in the 1970s might have included the following starters: a glass of chilled fruit juice; pâté and Melba toast; egg mayonnaise; and, on high days and holidays, an exotic prawn cocktail. These tempting entrées have fallen by the culinary wayside, but there is one dish, not listed above, that has proved impervious to the fluctuations of fashion and taste.
Its preparation and presentation may have changed, but nothing has dented the popularity of the Teflon starter: soup.
In the era of flares, Space Hoppers and room-temperature Blue Nun, the flavour spectrum was confined to cream of tomato, mushroom, consommé or racy French onion (croutons optional), but soup has moved with the times and its ability to inform and tap into food trends is undiminished.
The traditional soup market has increased in value by 23% to £621m between 2007 and 2012, according to the latest research by Mintel.
One suspects there is plenty of room for growth. Former chef Mark Crow, sales manager at the Redemption Food Company, says: "Soup has an established place in British food culture, with Mintel reporting that over eight in 10 adults have eaten soup in the past six months.
That's a big majority, by anyone's standards. "It's great for time-pressed caterers as there isn't a lot of labour, and chilled fresh soup is so easy for a chef to use. It's sustaining, hot food that uses little equipment.
"Research has shown that 61% of British adults prefer to either maintain or attempt to maintain a healthy lifestyle when eating eating out, and the beauty of soup is that it is considered an effective way to get nutrients from vegetables. People struggle to get their five a day, but with soup, you can have three of the five in one tasty bowlful."
Thai soups are popular right now, but Artisserie operations manager Neil Brent points out: "You get different types of customer in Hackney than in Fleet Street. One shop might want more vegetarian options, for example."
Hug in a bowl
Bone Daddies has been at the vanguard of the UK ramen boom and is launching its third London outlet, Bone Daddies Kensington.
Owner and executive chef Ross Shonhan is in no doubt about the timeless appeal of soup: "It's that comforting hug in a bowl, especially on cooler days. It has to be delicious, which sounds obvious, but you shouldn't be too tricky with it. In saying that, the combinations are endless.
"Our soup is obviously the vehicle for the noodles and it is interesting that Londoners place more importance on the broth than the noodle and often eat the soup and leave the noodles.
"In some parts of Japan, it happens the other way around. In the southern Japanese city of Hakata for example, where Tonkotsu-style comes from, the soup is used as more of a sauce for the noodle and the toppings and it is common not to finish the soup."
The secret of a good soup, says Shonhan, is lots of flavour, great ingredients and seasoning: "We nearly always use salt alongside soy. It gives a great balance."
Bone Daddies' pork bone broth is cooked for at least 20 hours and contains kombu seaweed and shiitake mushrooms.
Bit on the side
Ian Howard, head chef at Babylon in London, likes to put his own twist on traditional flavour combinations: "My current soup is white tomato served with a black olive muffin, which sticks with the famously traditional tomato but adapts it to a special dish that brings together different flavours and textures," says Howard.
"Soup will always be a classic, and I believe that as long as it is served with a proper garnish, which could be anything from a bread to an innovative accompaniment, then yes, it does still sell. Such garnishes not only make a dish look great but they also add value to the customer."
Eddie Holmes, managing director of Chop'd, which has nine London stores, maintains the quality of ingredients is more important than pricing or presentation. That said, businesses need to adapt to customers' needs and this can lead to the emergence of new practices.
Holmes says: "For our Thai salmon soup, we keep the ingredients dry in the fridge, then customers take the pots to have hot stock poured over the top so the broth cooks the salmon. This way the fish retains its nutrients and texture. And it's sashimi-grade salmon, so worth taking care of.
"Our customers are busy but want quality, so this works perfectly. They also get to choose the stock they want from a choice of Thai, chicken or vegetable."
Classic flavour combinations are among the bestsellers for catering and foodservice business Gather & Gather, but the new kids on the block, like Vietnamese pho-style soups, also score well in terms of healthy eating.
Nutritionist Kate Taylor, who leads health and wellness across the company, says: "Asian flavours are big with people keen on the miso-style noodle broth soups. Miso is a great source of protein, vitamins and minerals and is popular with those opting for vegetarian and vegan diets. It also makes a great low-calorie snack on a winter's afternoon.
"The Vietnamese pho-style soups are also proving popular as they are packed with veggies and lighter rice noodles. Their high water content also ensures you aren't left feeling hungry as well as maintaining hydration."
David Colwell, foodservice controller at the Real Soup Company, urges caterers to keep pace with global flavour trends to compete on the high street. Colwell identifies soup flavours with an international twist as a boom market.
"The current trend is for hot and spicy flavours, but for caterers who don't employ large numbers of kitchen staff, creating subtlety of flavour and texture can be time-consuming," he says.
To meet the demand, the Real Soup Company has added two 'world' recipes to its portfolio of 19 fresh soups: Goan Chicken is enhanced with spices, jalapeno chillies and coconut; while Patatas Bravas, a Spanish-style tomato and potato soup, is flavoured with smoked paprika and chilli.
Colwell says: "A creative, enticing soup menu will help retain regular customers, increase uptake and create a positive first impression.
Increasing your soup choices and offering a range of flavours will enhance your menu reputation, boost sales and help maximise your profit potential." All Real Soup Company soups are free from artificial colours, flavourings and preservatives, and most are suitable or vegetarian or gluten-free diets. They are available in 4kg microwaveable tubs for portion and cost control.
The luxe option
David Partridge, development chef at leading foodservice supplier Fresh Direct, believes it is essential to add a "little bit of magic" to entice customers. He says: "Use ingredients such as potato and onion, but enrich the soup with cream and finish with a hazelnut and kale pesto to create a lovely soup with a great look.
"Instead of leek and potato, try leek, white bean and smoked bacon. This is still as thick and warming, but with a smoky back note. Tomato soup can be jazzed up with roasted red pepper to add that charred flavour and finished with a black olive tapenade and grilled cheesy bread."
Chefs should consider using "on-trend ingredients" such as in quinoa, sweetcorn and pepper soup, topped with an avocado cream, or Jerusalem artichoke with spelt and roasted almonds.
New healthy eating products lend themselves to soup. Kerrymaid, for instance, has launched Kerrymaid Double as a cream alternative to allow chefs to imbue soups with an "authentic taste of Irish dairy." Grace Keenan, brand manager for Kerrymaid, said: "By using Kerrymaid Double, which is lower in fat and saturated fat than fresh cream, caterers will be able to ensure their soup is luxuriously creamy yet retains its virtuous credentials."
Bread, rolls and savouries accompanyingsoup purchases can help drive sales, according to LantmÁ¤nnen Unibake UK, a supplier of bakery products to the foodservice industry. Its range includes Bakehouse Continental Savouries (the Cheese Twist and Tomato & Cheese Swirly); the Panefresco Ciabatta range, made with extra virgin olive oil; Bakehouse Rusticata Dinner Rolls (Petite Baguette, Malted Grain Navette and Parmesan Pave); and Le Pain Chic Mini Petit Pains.
Sector innovation extends to the cutlery used to serve soup, including the first spoons to be made from recycled cornstarch.
Edinburgh-based Vegware's new cutlery range has 90% less carbon than standard plastic cutlery and is heat resistant up to 85Â°C.
Joe Frankel, managing director and founder of Vegware, says: "After two years of development, we have fantastic cutlery that looks great and is sturdy and strong. Best of all, our RCPLA cutlery uses recycled material and is certified compostable after use."
Dualit has reported an increase of almost 50% in soup kettle sales over the last four years. Its 11-litre copper soup kettle fits with current metallic trends and is popular front-of-house in gastropubs. It also has a range of appliances, including the compact six-litre soup kettle, finished in stainless steel, for smaller catering operations.