With "fresh" produce from all corners of the globe on sale all year round, many consumers overlook thepleasures of seasonal fruit and vegetables. Caterers, however, knowthat local provenance pays dividends, says Antony Adshead
To paraphrase a well-known retailer's recent advertising campaign, people don't eat just food any more, they eat food that is fresh, seasonal and whose provenance is loudly declared.
The retail sector has played a massive role in exposing the British public to the idea of good old-fashioned provenance and seasonality, both of which are becoming valuable marketing tools in the catering sector.
"It has become increasingly important for caterers to use fresh local seasonal produce in their dishes," says Mark Irish, senior development chef at fresh produce supplier Pauleys. "There is a customer perception that seasonal local produce is best, as it demonstrates the supporting of local businesses as well as a reduction in the carbon footprint.
"Using seasonal ingredients means optimum freshness, quality, taste and appearance, and it is beneficial for chefs to capitalise on this when developing menus, communicating their provenance to customers with descriptions such as ‘fruit salad made with Kentish strawberries'."
Radisson Edwardian Hotels takes the view that, with every type of fruit and vegetable on the supermarket shelves all year round, it's hard for consumers to know what's in season, so its menus are being designed to offer fresh produce from around the UK to be enjoyed in season. "As a result of the surge in importing foods from around the world consumers are beginning to believe that strawberries grow all year round," says David Sharpe, executive head chef at the Radisson Edwardian Manchester. "Air miles are taking their toll on our diet and on our environment, and by celebrating UK foods we are contributing to a more sustainable home-grown food industry and celebrating produce we can be proud of."
Sharpe sources as much produce locally as possible, with strawberries coming from Cheshire and about 15 varieties of salad leaves, including wild English cress, from Preston in Lancashire. Local golf courses provide an abundance of blueberries for apple and blueberry pie.
Arnaud Boutrou, field sales manager at London-based supplier Wild Harvest, recognises that UK chefs would like to use native fresh produce as often as possible, and the company aims to provide only home-grown products when available. "We'll soon get fresh asparagus, fresh fraises des bois and Mara des Bois from the UK," he says. "Quality is much better compared to imported ones, as they are much fresher.
"Outside London there are lots of speciality growers of herbs and organic produce that have very local markets, and there are lots of fantastic UK products such as Jersey Royals and Cornish potatoes that don't always make it to London.
"There are plenty of local and wild products available in more rural areas that sell locally and direct to restaurants. Wild garlic and wild leeks, for example, are excellent just folded into a risotto at the end and are also great for soups and cream sauces. Products like these are so versatile, and the possibilities are really down to the chef's imagination."
Sea kale is getting a lot of attention just now, says Nigel Harris, managing director of Fresh Direct. "It's known as the winter asparagus and is liked because it's native to the UK, mostly found around coastal regions. It has a short season, and April sees the tail end, so it's one to take advantage of before it's too late."
Spring marks an exciting season for fresh produce, seeing the first of many new crops. Early rhubarb begins to flourish, as do lettuce and watercress, spinach and radishes and purple sprouting broccoli.
Handling fresh produce is not necessarily simple, as it has a short shelf life, requires preparation and creates waste. All this has implications for procurement and kitchen practice.
Hilton hotels are going through a complete menu revamp, boosting the use of fresh produce, while simplifying procurement by cutting the number of ingredients. "We're going back to basics," says Knud Bundgaard, Hilton's area chef for the UK and Ireland. "We have designed a new simpler menu. It puts more responsibility on to chefs, but the feedback we're getting is that they enjoy it - and the guests appreciate what they're getting on their plates.
"We used to have too many ingredients, with few used in more than one dish. Now, for example, new potatoes are served with chicken but are also used in olive-crushed potatoes."
To ensure menus take advantage of the best value available at any given time it is essential to have good lines of communication with your supplier. With fresh produce subject to the vagaries of nature, a close relationship with suppliers can help you stay informed if anything affects your order, says Harris.
"Open communications are imperative so both parties understand each other's demands and requirements and, in turn, their limitations," he says. "Caterers have to recognise that, while we can supply a particular variety from a particular country, there will occasionally be events beyond our control. Damaging weather conditions never stop us from supplying our customers, as we ensure we have a series of contingency growers lined up."
Paul Calvert is executive head chef for contract caterer Artizian, which makes a selling point to its blue-chip company clients of the employee health and wellbeing benefits of its fresh produce. "We have a close relationship with suppliers," he says. "We get daily supplies and change menus according to what's available. We get market reports weekly and, with seasonal food, as soon as it's available we put it on menus."
If kitchen prep time and available skills are an issue, suppliers can help out. Paul Farr is head of food at Spirit Group, whose 145 Chef & Brewer restaurants save on labour by using pre-prepared fresh produce from Fresh Direct. "We ensure a high specification of handling from the supplier," he says. "With veg like lettuce we get pre-prepped portions, which means we can control consistency across the estate and have packs of, say, five portions of lettuce that are ready to use and not getting banged around in the kitchen all day."
Good economy in the kitchen is another key to using fresh produce. To eliminate waste you have to work smart. Calvert says: "With broccoli, for example, you can use the flowers as a main vegetable while the remainder can be used for soup. Where buying fresh produce means you might take a hit in money terms, such as with asparagus, there are other ways to incorporate it into menus, such as in a sauce."
As far as the marketing goes, the advice is simple: know your food know where it comes from and make sure you tell your customer. It's a key part of Hilton's food strategy, says Bundgaard.
"We are putting more and more provenance information on the menu. Customers want to see it, and they don't mind paying for food if they know they'll get something exceptional and worth the money."
Fresh produce can require preparation and create waste, but smart kitchen practice ensures that the benefits of taste and appearance are preserved
Using locally grown fruit, vegetables and salad leaves in season - and advertising the fact on your menu - is a sure way of impressing customers
- Fresh Direct 01869 365600
- Pauleys 0870 600 2005
- Wild Harvest 020 7498 5397