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Heat wave: The chilli sauces that are heating up the market

20 March 2020 by

Ketchup, brown sauce and mayo had better watch out – hot sauce is fast becoming the UK's favourite condiment. Will Hawkes finds out which products and suppliers are igniting caterers' imaginations

It's just after 4pm on a damp February afternoon at the Brick Brewery in Peckham and Richie Calver is getting ready for an evening's work. Calver, though, is not a brewer; alongside brother Alex he runs Slow Richie's, a food stall located within the brewery, which was founded just under six years ago. His offer at this rectangular yard in the shadow of Peckham Rye Station is simple. Four sandwiches, three of them pork-based and one vegetarian, served with varying levels of spice and heat.

The heat is important – so important, indeed, that his hot sauces have gone from being a part of his hot food offer to something that people buy from the stall and online to eat at home.

Slow Richies range
Slow Richies range

"The intention when we started wasn't to sell the sauces wholesale," he says, "but there was such a demand from our customers. It made sense just to start boxing them up and it's gained some good traction from there. A lot of the local shops and pubs stock them. It's become a nice little side business."

Calver is not alone; hot sauce has gone from niche interest to condiment king over the past decade in the UK. The likes of sriracha, Cholula and Frank's Red Hot are now supermarket staples, joining Tabasco and Encona among the list of hot sauces that most Britons can easily get their hands on.

"It's scientifically proven that hot and spicy food makes us happier!" explains Sarah Lesser-Moor, brand manager for Lion sauces at AAK Foodservice. "It's the work of capsaicin, a chemical compound that gives chillies their spicy flavour. As capsaicin creates a burning sensation in our mouths, our bodies respond by releasing endorphins and dopamine – natural mood-lifters."

Lion piri piri sauces
Lion piri piri sauces

And small operators like Slow Richie's have thrived, too. Peckham, indeed, is ground zero for UK hot sauce as the home of Hot Sauce Society, a two-day festival in May that brings together the country's best producers, such as Sheffield's the League of Unchartered Flavours and En Root's Raja Bonnet Sauce from Clapham. Hop Burns & Black, a beer shop that stocks an excellent range of hot sauce, can also be found in the south-east London district.

"When we started there were only a handful of other small-batch producers making hot sauces and condiments," says Calver.

"That's definitely grown in the past five years, especially so in the last two or three years. There's many more producers out there. Customer demand has shifted away a lot from the big brands to the small local producers, which is great."

Hot stuff

Hot sauces, quixotically, are not just about heat. They're increasingly diverse, as producers seek new flavour combinations. Calver, who grew up in Kent and has worked in catering since he was 16, produces special editions that, as he puts it, "move with the seasons," and which include an unfermented blend made with Scotch bonnet peppers.

"We made a cranberry and clementine hot sauce for Christmas, and we had the winterberry hot sauce as well," he says. "That sold really well. Now wild garlic is just coming into season, so I've got wild garlic sriracha and that will be coming out in the next month or so.

"I experiment all the time and I'm constantly jotting down ideas. Then, I'll start making a few batches just to make sure they're good, and get them to friends and family for feedback. And then, as soon as we know we've got a decent product, I'll get them bottled and pushed out to people."

At the moment, he says, his hot sauces are used more in pubs than restaurants, although that may have more to do with the type of restaurants – high-end, independent – that have opened up in this corner of south-east London over the past decade.

"I've sent samples to a few restaurants," he says, "but what I find is that they make everything themselves rather than buying products in. Pubs are happy just to buy the sauces and use them. They'll play about with them and find out how much works in their recipes. A lot of them use them for Bloody Mary mix."

The classics

The classic addition to a Bloody Mary is, of course, Tabasco, which has acquired a number of stablemates in the past few years. In addition to the classic sauce and chipotle, jalapeño and Habañero varieties, there's now Scorpion and sriracha, an acknowledgement from Tabasco that customers are interested in variety and complexity, not just heat.

"With their distinct flavours, they appeal to consumers with an increasingly sophisticated palate when it comes to ‘heat' and spiciness," says Helen Hyde, business unit manager at Tabasco. "The Scorpion sauce will add real kick and depth of flavour to any dishes – try adding it to chicken wings.

Tabasco sriracha sauce in stir fry
Tabasco sriracha sauce in stir fry

"Sriracha is on-trend and perfect for Oriental dishes as well as street food and tapas-style menus. It's also an easy way to spice up mayonnaise. Wing Yip, the Chinese sauce specialist, also offers sriracha from a variety of brands, including Chef Choice and Mai Siam, in sizes from 200ml to two litres.

Mai Siam sriracha sauce
Mai Siam sriracha sauce

Although the popularity of chilli peppers might show no signs of abating, one other way of adding heat to a sauce or dish is more traditionally British.

Inna Elwell, head of dressings at Unilever Food Solutions, says: "Our mustard has been developed to deliver strong, bold flavour – heat doesn't always have to be about spice. Our fiery mustard is made with British ingredients and we grind our seeds twice then sieve the powder up to nine times. All of this contributes to the famous kick Colman's mustard has been adding to dishes for generations."

Going global

There are plenty of ways to use hot sauce and they don't have to be on the side of ‘dirty' junk food. One country where you may not expect hot sauce is Spain, where patatas bravas, a classic tapas dish, often tastes extremely mild to those brought up in more spice-friendly climes. However, Brindisa, the Borough-based importer of Spain's best grub, has just launched a pair of sauces called Salsa Bastarda.

"It's a classic Spanish recipe that combines a rich tomato and piquillo pepper sauce with a smoky, spicy kick from hot smoked paprika and cayenne pepper," says James Robinson, product trainer at Brindisa. "It's a highly versatile and subtly spiced sauce that can be adapted to a wide range of applications."

Salsa Bastarda
Salsa Bastarda

Piri-piri, a Portuguese spice blend, has been popularised in the UK by Nando's, but it's increasingly making itself at home elsewhere.

Lion Sauces has just introduced five new additions to its piri-piri range: mild, hot, extra hot, lemon and herb, and mango.

McCormick, meanwhile, expects a trio of spice blends to be the next new thing: XO sauce, from Hong Kong; suya spice, a West African seasoning blend made from ginger, chillies and roasted peanuts; and Indian gunpowder spice (Milagai Podi), made with finely ground roasted dal (lentils), sesame seeds, chillies and other spices.

"Our global expertise enables us to create this exciting insight," says Al Thaker, McCormick's marketing controller EMEA. "These blends and sauces, with their rich textures and bold tastes, make it super-easy for flavour-hungry diners to experience exotic flavour without committing to an entire global cuisine."

Similarly, World of Spice has a huge variety of options, taking in everything from paprika to piri-piri.

EHL Ingredients, meanwhile, is expecting some new flavours to ake centre stage. "Ras el hanout, harissa and piri-piri are examples of spice blends that have gone from being relatively unknown in the UK to seasoning staples," explains Tasneem Backhouse, joint managing director of the Lähde foodservice brand by EHL Ingredients. "We're expecting a similar pattern of availability and demand for seasonings such as chimichurri, zhug (from Yemen), mitmita (Ethiopia) and bezar (Arab Emirates)."

Santa Maria Foodservice also expects chimichurri, an Argentine blend of parsley, garlic, olive oil, oregano and red wine vinegar, to make a breakthrough this year. "We know younger consumers (under 45) are more likely to choose spicier lunch options than their older counterparts, and ‘five-a-day eaters' – consumers who tend to avoid meat in favour of vegetables for weekday lunches – are particularly keen, with 41% enjoying a spicier lunch," says Simon Solway, country manager out of home, UK and Ireland, Santa Maria Foodservice.

Chimichurri salmon
Chimichurri salmon

Healthy and vegan

There's still plenty of demand for healthier options, and a couple of interesting contenders are emerging. The recently relaunched Tanya's Just Real is a selection of sauces that aim to replicate the benefits of home-cooked food. The six-strong range includes Cucumber Blunder, a combination of Japanese and Malaysian flavours, and Fiery Fiasco, which mixes Thai and Spanish influences. All can be used hot to coat and cook or in a stir-fry, or cold as dips, condiments or dressings.

"In essence we are offering cooking from scratch in a bottle," says founder and owner Tanya Robertson-Lambert. "Our products are 70% and above fresh veg, herbs and fruit, cold pressed, not heated. There's no added salt, no refined sugar, no preservatives, no chemicals, no manufactured gums or acids, they're never pasteurised and naturally they're vegan."

Also filling the gap for vegan sauces is Follow Your Heart Vegenaise, which offers both a sriracha and a chipotle variety and a horseradish sauce in its extensive collection of vegan mayos. Britain's spice revolution, it seems, is just hotting up.

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