Vegetables tipped to reign supreme in 2016

Liz O’Keefe
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2016 is being hailed as the year of the vegetable in the UK. From hybrid veg to plant water, vegetables and all their by-products are ‘in’ with the cool kids, where we always knew they should be.

Of course, I’m not a time traveller (always disappointing) and some of the ideas I share may not necessarily materialise. To analyse future trends therefore we really need to look back and see how food trends or ideas have taken on with consumers previously.

2015 was the year of making healthy look attractive and tasty. Plant-wielding food blogger Ella Woodward, of Deliciously Ella fame, proved previous ‘blogger power’ predictions right and has practically become a household name. And so, vegetables or ‘plant-based foods’, as she and now the food media terms them, have been able to ride high on the popularity wave, with butternut brownies, eating the rainbow (of fruit and veg) and almond milk becoming very acceptable across the spectrum with the supermarkets taking note.

Major multiple Tesco caught on quickly; offering prepared pots of ground cauliflower as an alternative to cous cous or rice, and spiralised courgette (aka courgetti) and butternut squash becoming available in its stores by the end of 2015.

Marks and Spencer has launched a range of ‘eat well’ products as part of its Health and Wellbeing campaign for 2016, including courgetti ready meals and an aloe vera and coconut water from its new juice range, which also features an apple, blood orange and butternut squash juice that’s irritatingly described by some as ‘swavory’, or a mix between sweet and savoury – another hot trend for 2016.

All this is helping UK consumers to lead to a so-called “flexitarian” (or semi-vegetarian) way of living and what Lucie Greene of global trends practice JWT Innovation calls the “new omnivores”.

“Consumers are rethinking their relationship with meat, eating less of it and familiarising themselves with other options – more than 60% of millennials consume meat alternatives,” says Greene, setting up a cue for some dramatic fruit and veg to take prime position in the nation’s diet.

Veggie power: sprout flowers, mushrooms and seaweed

There’s no doubt kale, avocado and cauliflower have emerged as the fresh produce superstars of recent years, and now other sub-category products like baby kale, courgette flowers, sprout flowers and Cavolo Nero are getting a taste of the limelight.

British vegetable breeder Tozer Seeds brought us the sweet-tasting brassica sprout flowers – a cross between sprouts and kale – which has been available to consumers for about six years, and is now stocked in Lidl, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose. These little morsels (do try them if you can – they are really very good) are part of a bigger trend known as ‘hybrid’ vegetables. An obvious cross between two plants, hybrid vegetables are now appealing to consumers, as are hybrid fruit. We’ve seen Tenderstem broccoli (the lovechild of Chinese kale and broccoli) storm the shelves since its introduction more than 10 years ago and now it could be time for sprout flowers to reign supreme.

Going back to basics, Brussels sprouts in their original form are also on the way up in the popularity stakes and the previously terribly underrated cauliflower is tipped by most to become bigger than even kale in 2016. It’s only a shame this a bit too late for all those cauliflower growers who went out of business at the start of the decade.

In a subject close to my own heart, foodie mag Olive has tipped raw mushrooms as a future trend, naming lesser-known wild Caesar mushroom as an autumn dish on the menu at restaurant Dabbous or simply suggesting consumers shave cup mushrooms with a dressing. It’s worth noting that this trend must stick to the cultivated mushrooms more often than not because many wild types are poisonous when raw.

When it comes to the mushroom category as a whole, the supermarkets certainly gave the markets and delis a run for their money during the later part of 2015. Wild and cultivated mushrooms like whole eryngii (or king oyster) mushrooms were offered in mixed packs for the first time (Morrisons), in addition to various other interesting types, including a version of the cup mushroom, called the Forestière, which was first launched at Tesco in 2011 and developed for a sweeter taste. Elsewhere in the fungi kingdom, enoki mushrooms (those that feature long, thin strands) could really lend themselves to the faux-noodle/pasta brigade since they can be served either raw or blanched. Clearly, how the mushroom mix diversifies or declines in the supermarkets and on restaurant plates will be one to watch in 2016.

Onto seaweed, sea veg, especially samphire, will be used more and more, and with any luck we’ll finally be able to recognise the difference between the rock and marsh varieties (read this article I wrote on rock samphire for PBUK in September 2015). Foraged veg will also do well thanks to the UK’s current preoccupation for the bizarre in food, as will smoked and charcoaled food, for the same reason.

Water, water everywhere

Meanwhile, coconut water was a moneymaker in 2015, having successfully maneuvered itself from health drink to mainstream beverage. Going forward, its popularity isn’t set to wane either, especially seeing as it ticks all the healthy, tasty, plant-based boxes.

What’s more, coconut water has paved the way for many other plant waters to follow in its footsteps. Birch water is a big trend in the USA right now and is nipping at the heels of coconut water in the UK too. Made with the sap from a birch tree, the water is said to offer all the benefits of coconut water but can also lower cholesterol and may have anti-inflammatory effects. Basil seeds are also being used in drinks – the result looks a bit like clear tapioca – and nut milk, such as almond and coconut, is going strong.

When it comes to fruit, watermelon juice is set to become popular and the use of produce in cocktails – from beetroot bellinis to avocado daiquiris – is becoming more and more everyday (watch out; I’ve got an article coming soon on this subject). The use of expensive kaffir limes, rather than just the leaves, could also be on the cards, with lots of exotic citruses getting a look in.

Food: the serious and the experimental

The subject of food will get seriously political in 2016. With food bloggers now the norm, chefs and food writers have started to assert their authority. Food blogger are the go-to place for information on a particular niche or subject as well as their individual experimentation in food, so chefs are naturally setting themselves up as the ‘grown-ups’ of the situation – as in, they know what they are doing.

When it comes to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver both are petitioning the UK government, and anyone else who’ll listen, on their well-researched and beneficial views. Nigella (Lawson) is back (expect a bit of a revolt against the skinny-Minnie health-conscious types), and we may hear more from long-established UK food hero and food charity supporter Prue Leith.

More and more, the UK seems to be a nation of ‘food explorers’, whatever our budget. Always searching for something new, chefs and food writers in the UK have started to realise the wealth of new foodie experiences to be discovered in different African countries, in particular. Already filtering through are options like the Tunisian dish shakshouka (eggs poached in tomatoes and spices) and jollof, a rice dish from Ghana.

New food experiences will continue to be key in 2016, with food adventures and supper clubs still attracting the crowds and making all sorts of different types of foods accessible to the masses. Cuisines such as Nikkei, Peruvian, Sri Lankan and the ‘real’ Mexican are among those to watch out for. Akin to supper clubs and pop-up restaurants, we’ll also see more big-name chefs take the helm in smaller establishments or even fast food joints for short periods, in search of the next experiment.  

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