With an increasing number of social invitations to fulfil during the busiest holiday season of the year, there is no doubt UK consumers will want to experience a variety of interesting dining options this Christmas – whether they’re eating out, cooking a feast at home – or not actually celebrating the holiday at all. Produce Business UK takes a closer look at some of the latest trends and innovations that could inspire shoppers and diners to buy, cook and eat more fresh fruit and veg during December
Livening up traditional festive fare
When it comes to festive dining, Diane Camp, development chef at Reynolds, which supplies to a range of UK foodservice providers, suggests most Brits are still looking for a traditional experience.
“At this time of year, people really look forward to eating parsnips and, believe it or not, sprouts,” she explains. “It’s a matter of bringing something new to a familiar spread to make it feel special.”
Currently, Reynolds reports greater interest in Chantenay carrots and Piccolo parsnips – short, sweet and tender baby versions of their commonly available forms – as well as increased demand for multi-coloured heritage carrots.
Sarah Calcutt at Partners in Produce agrees there is an emphasis on colour this year, attributing the “jewel-like” appearance of the pomegranate to its popularity at Christmas. “There is a huge amount of innovation going on in the produce industry currently, with many items that are not quite mainstream yet,” she says. “A seasonal menu shift at this time of year sees plenty of opportunities for root vegetables, particularly those with interesting colours.”
Innovations with firm favourites
Even the sprout, so often overlooked in the creativity discussions, is finding a pivotal role in the colour-revolution, with an increase in the number of retail outlets making the red sprout more widely available to consumers. The 2015 Christmas TV ad campaign at Marks & Spencer even features a pirouetting pyramid of red and green sprouts.
The uptake of flower sprouts, meanwhile, has gained huge momentum in recent years, with availability appearing across a growing number of retail outlets. The result of crossing the Brussels sprout with kale, flower sprouts have a milder, sweeter taste and have proven to be popular for their versatility, not to mention their associated superfood status thanks to the revival of kale.
Flower sprouts provide plenty of consumer choice in many senses, also appealing to the seasonal shopper as a home-grown vegetable that’s available from November through to March.
The key to the growing uptake of these newer varieties lies in the flexibility that they afford to consumers – sprouts on stalks offer increased freshness; whereas pre-prepared packs containing a range of vegetables or flavour combinations present consistent results to a market that may be new to cooking or would otherwise hesitate from deviating away from the norm.
Breaking down barriers
However, special or colourful varieties and pre-prepared or pre-packed options may not always be the only solution to driving produce sales at Christmas – old festive favourites like potatoes can still open windows of opportunity.
“Recent years have seen a slow but steady erosion of fresh potato consumption, especially amongst 25-35-year-olds,” explains Nick White, head of marketing and corporate affairs at AHDB Potatoes.
According to White, one of the main challenges facing the potato industry is the belief that potatoes are carbohydrate-heavy and, hence, fattening. To address the issue, campaigns to drive the frequency of potato consumption are varied, with social media and mainstream women’s magazines leading the way. White has also drafted in a host of food and lifestyle bloggers to reinvent the humble spud through speedy recipes that all contain fewer than 500 calories.
Making an impact at retail
So, what more can be done to raise fresh potato sales this Christmas? White suggests the point of sale is very important. “Engagement and theatre need to be sharper and clearer at a retail level,” he says. “Customers really engage with the final product, so beautiful shots of roast potatoes, mash and salad potatoes could really help get the message across.”
There are also opportunities to introduce up-and-coming potato varieties that are enjoying a rise in popularity. Camp from Reynolds not only emphasises the importance of working with development chefs to create interest and buzz around these “luxurious” varieties, which include Nectar, Arsenal, Amora and Mozart, but also to introduce new ways to cook with potatoes around the festive season, such as château potatoes and ready-prepared turned potatoes that high street restaurants can showcase too.
Thankfully, Christmas brings along some good news for potato sales. “Last year, the four-weekly volume sales for potatoes were 12% higher in the lead up to Christmas than the average four-weekly volume for the year… everybody loves a roast potato,” states White.
Seasonal is the way forward
Looking at a handful of 2015 festive menus at some of London’s leading restaurants, it’s clear to see that seasonality is a message that’s certainly driven home at Christmas, as pointed out earlier by Calcutt. For example, Daniel Doherty, executive chef at the Duck & Waffle since 2012, is placing an emphasis on fresh, local and sustainably sourced seasonal ingredients.
“Seasonal is the way forward,” comments Calcutt. “We should be buying what’s available, not searching out specific ingredients.”
Salsify and Jerusalem artichoke, in particular, feature on the selection of festive menus at Duck and Waffle. Plus the obvious influence that well-known chefs have on consumers indicates there is an opportunity to present some of these home-grown, seasonal varieties within a retail setting too.
What’s more, there are additional opportunities for fruit to play a starring role at Christmas. Strawberries, for example, don’t make the cut for dessert garnishes during the party season, points out Camp. “For alternatives to Christmas pudding, citrus flavours are really big,” she adds. “Also, lots of apple varieties are in season, so a festive twist on a classic apple tarte tatin using cinnamon and star anise is an interesting alternative.”
Making space for alternative traditions
At the same time, it’s important to remember that a large proportion of the UK population doesn’t celebrate Christmas in the traditional sense. However, many still use the extended public holiday period to savour a meal over a number of hours with loved ones.
David Lam, founder of Cherry Farms in Cambridgeshire, which specialises in oriental produce, thinks there is definitely more room for other specialist fruit and vegetables to be a hit at Christmas.
“Many Chinese restaurants close for a few days over the Christmas period and people look to entertaining at home,” he comments. “The tradition is to have a big gathering and serve up hot-pot, continuously bringing varieties of finely sliced fresh vegetables, meat and seafood for people to feast on for hours.”
Lam cites tong ho – also widely referred to as chop suey greens – as a popular choice of green vegetables to liven up a savoury broth, which could be marketed in addition to traditional festive ingredients.
It should not be ignored that scores of consumers are making food choices that increase the nutritional value of the meals they eat; seeking out alternative ingredients, non-meat solutions or fresh alternatives – even during the season best known for letting go and indulging.
Rachel Demuth, founder of Bath-based Demuths, which specialists in vegetarian cookery courses, notes: “Increasingly, people want to learn new ways of making vegetables centre-stage when hosting”.
One of Demuth’s star vegetables this season is celeriac. “It can look rather ugly, but it is so versatile,” she says. “It features in some canapé recipes, and is great puréed or mashed as part of a starter or as a side to go with a main dish.”
The season of plenty
According to the September 2015 edition of the Green King Leisure Spend Tracker, consumer spending this Christmas is expected to be on the increase compared with last year’s figures.
Whether celebrated in the traditional sense or not, the fact remains that Christmas is the season of plenty for consumers – and produce has a key place at the festive table.