Liquid assets: free-from sauces as good as the originals

17 August 2023 by
Liquid assets: free-from sauces as good as the originals

If you can source free-from sauces and products that are indistinguishable from the original, you can offer your customers the same – and sometimes superior – options. Will Hawkes reports

A s Lewisham MP Jim Dowd once discovered, Sheffield guards its treasures jealously and vociferously. The South Yorkshire city is home to a variety of under-appreciated gustatory delights, from sandwich makers such as Lily's Bakery to more than its fair share of the world's best pubs – and then there's Henderson's Relish, a sauce that has become a local legend since 1885.

In 2014, Dowd accused the makers of Henderson's of "passing off", suggesting in Parliament that its orange packaging was an attempt to ape Lea & Perrins' Worcestershire Sauce. He was soon put straight, not least by then deputy prime minister and Sheffield MP Nick Clegg, but he could – just about – be excused his blunder. Historically, Henderson's has been little known outside its hometown.

That is changing, though, and quickly. This family-owned product is now available nationally, used in Michelin-starred restaurants and by groups such as the Ivy and Itsu, as well as being on sale in a number of supermarket chains. In the past seven years, sales have increased fourfold and one of the key drivers has been its ‘free-from' status. It contains none of the 14 major food allergens (such as eggs or nuts) and is gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan, unlike its rival Worcestershire sauce, which is made using anchovies and barley malt vinegar.

"Allergen awareness is at the front of everybody's minds now, particularly in the world of foodservice," says Matt Davies, Henderson's general manager. "Henderson's represents an alternative to Worcestershire Sauce, which has allergens – and that is at least some of the story of how we've grown in recent years."

Henderson's is a model example of a way in which operators can navigate the complexity of special diet requirements without compromising on flavour, in a country where – according to Coeliac UK – 8.5 million people are now gluten-free and the sector is worth an estimated £835m a year.

Sheffield steel

Until recently, Henderson's wasn't particularly a regional product, with its popularity confined largely to one city.

"We used to joke that if you wanted Henderson's, you had to come to Sheffield to get it," says Davies. For more than 100 years it was made in a factory on Leavygreave Road, close to the university, and then in 2013 production shifted to a purpose-built site on Parkway Rise in the city.

The recipe, which includes tamarind, cayenne peppers, vinegar, garlic and cloves, is known only to three people, including owners and siblings Julia Waxman and Simon Freeman. "It has a unique taste," says Davies of the spicy, tangy sauce. "Once you've tried it, there's nothing else like it. There isn't another product on the market like it."

It is this, as much as its allergen-free status, that has opened a lot of doors, from recipe box producer Gusto to the NHS, and from high-end chains to quality restaurants, such as Sheffield's Jöro. It's now certified by Coeliac UK and accredited by SALSA (Safe and Local Supplier Approval), with B Corp status the next aim. There's even a special version made without saccharine, using a natural caramel colour, that is available to foodservice. You may have tried it without knowing – it's in Stokes' Bloody Mary Ketchup, for example.

"We're like Sheffield," says Davies. "People have a perception of what it's like before they come, and then when you experience it you realise, ‘Ah right, this is great!' We're not a big company and we don't have a huge marketing budget, but when a chef discovers Henderson's Relish, it becomes part of their cooking."

Beating the bloat

Henderson's is not the only traditional product to have embraced modern dietary requirements. Glebe Farm makes gluten-free oats, meaning they're processed without any risk of contamination from other grains (oats themselves contain no gluten). Their oats are tested to an undetectable level of less than 5ppm gluten, which is significantly lower than the European standard for gluten-free, which stands at 20ppm.

"Our attention to detail has allowed us to avoid any gluten failure in 14 years and billions of servings," says Tony Holmes, chief operating officer. "We also remain allergen- and nut-free on site."

Glebe Farm offers a range of products, from cereals and flour to non-dairy milks. According to Holmes, these products are increasingly in demand even among those without an intolerance. "It makes good business sense to ensure you can cater to a range of special diets and also offer the best possible produce," he says. "Our gluten-free process means our oats are of the highest quality – they're the purest oats available. So they're not just great for coeliacs, they are great for everyone.

"There's a misconception that free-from products are limited to those with intolerances. Nowadays people make food choices for a variety of reasons, from environmental to ethical or for health benefits, or they simply don't like the taste of something. A vegan or flexitarian diet is a classic example of this."

Pidy, meanwhile, offers gluten-free, vegan pastry. Fabien Levet, commercial manager, suggests using the company's pastry bases for a vegan-friendly version of a classic peach melba, where Pidy's pre-made plant-based base can be filled with peach marmalade and sweet boiled peaches, topped with vegan ice-cream, raspberry sauce and flaked almonds.

"Vegan and gluten-free pastry recipes are often complex and time-consuming," says Levet. "Our ready-to-fill pastry bases can alleviate these stressors with vegan and gluten-free options of the classic sablée or shortcrust. With an ambient shelf life of more than nine months, these bases are convenient to quickly grab and fill as required."

Fish and chips is another classic dish where gluten-free options have rapidly become part of the mainstream. At Notcutts, a Suffolk-based, family-owned business comprising 19 garden centres, 18 of which have restaurants, Middleton Foods' Premium Batter Mix is used.

"The development team at Middleton Foods developed a Premium Plus Batter Mix for us which has moved the product on from the original Premium Batter Mix," says Kevin Boyle, food and beverage director. "It's a gluten-free, lighter, crisper batter mix that holds really well. Our customers are delighted with it."

Time savers

A growing understanding of special diets means it's increasingly easy to find time-saving options. According to managing director Gordon Lauder at frozen food distributor Central Foods, the company, "has hugely expanded its range of free-from products over recent years, recognising the importance of this issue.

"We've been impressed by the increase in choice that's now available and have selected some superb free-from products to make it easier for our customers to serve their customers who have special dietary requirements," he says. "Indeed, free-from products nowadays are generally served as part of the wider menu and are so tasty that they appeal to all diners, not just those with special dietary needs."

Milk is such a central ingredient in our cuisine that allergen-free alternatives have inevitably become hugely popular. Karen Green, marketing manager at Aimia Foods, suggests Koko Milk: "Koko milk varieties are free from allergens such as dairy, gluten, soy and nuts, meaning caterers have total peace of mind that the dairy-free drinks and recipes they are creating are suitable for all customers," she says. "What's more, Koko coconut milk varieties boast a neutral taste that's close to semi-skimmed dairy milk."

Then there are Mari Bases, a range of 12 gluten-free sauce bases (including but not limited to Korean, Oriental, Tandoori, Bombay and Thai) from Major. "Caterers can use these water-based one-pot ingredients to make a variety of delicious dishes," says Paul Saunders, marketing manager.

A helping hand

There's now a huge amount of equipment available to help kitchens when it comes to allergen avoidance. Tipiak, for example, offers allergen fact sheets that can be attached to all products in foodservice and are available as a download from their website, while the San Jamar Allergen Saf-T-Zone System (available from Foodservice Equipment Marketing) is designed to help foodservice operators create special food allergen preparation procedures to avoid allergen cross-contact.

Hospitality tech vendor Shiji Group is the creator of a cloud point-of-sale solution that ensures waiters can immediately access the right information. "By equipping our staff with a comprehensive point of sale solution that seamlessly incorporates detailed information about menu items, including allergies and dietary requirements, we empower them to provide accurate and personalised guidance," says Wolfgang Emperger, senior vice-president of Europe, Africa and UK.

When it comes to cooking, too, there are more options than ever. Deep fat fryer brand Valentine has recently introduced an allergen-control frying range which, according to sales director Steve Elliott, uses "entirely separate pans and pumped filtration. The Valentine Allergen Control fryers allow operators to serve their customers, confident their food is safe for those with dietary requirements to consume and complies to current legislation."

Welbilt's option includes colour-coded accessories for its Merrychef high-speed oven. "Using the coloured cooking trays or liners, an operator can cook different types of food without having to clean down the equipment inbetween uses, which makes for a speedy operation and ensures caterers only need one piece of equipment, saving space and time," says Alistair Farquhar, national sales manager UK and Ireland.

Back in Sheffield, meanwhile, Henderson's continues to rule the roost. In an age when products that cater to everyone are increasingly in demand, though, this is one secret the Steel City is struggling to keep.




Foodservice Equipment




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