With the launch of a ‘living encyclopedia’ at its glasshouse facility, visitors to UK cut micro leaf and speciality produce grower Westlands in Worcestershire will have no difficulty in discovering the next tastes and textures to try out. Produce Business UK learns more
This latest initiative is just one way in which Westlands is determined to stay ahead of the trends and work in partnership with its food clients to identify new opportunities. After all, collaboration is the name of the game when it comes to finding the next big trend.
“We are constantly talking to people, visiting trade shows and working closely with Michelin-starred restaurants in Birmingham,” James Seymour, marketing and product development manager at Evesham-based Westlands, tells Produce Business UK.
“We work closely with foodservice operators, distributors and chefs to understand what their customers want, and what they are looking for. For instance, we ask whether they might want an aniseed or lemony, citrusy taste, or if they want to add colour. We are always looking at where the trends are going, and seeking to put them in front of our customers.”
Pink stem radish
Innovation and co-operation are seen as key to future growth both for the company and its customers. As a result, Westlands is taking the initiative by looking for ways to provide customers with a constant supply of new tastes and ideas. The creation of a special ‘living encyclopedia’ within its glasshouse is an integral part of that policy. This is where all existing and potentially future plants can be seen, tried and discussed in detail.
“Part of my job is to establish a showcase – a living encyclopedia of our products – that is open to visitors,” notes Seymour. “As we take visitors around the site, we will be looking for pointers as to the type of produce, taste and texture they are looking for.
“When we take them into the trial area, we can guide them immediately to the right areas that would fit their interests and provide new ideas, which they might not otherwise have considered. We have already had several chefs visiting the new concept and it is proving very popular.”
Identifying new trends
All the staff at Westlands are constantly seeking out new ideas and new products in the course of their work and travels. By bringing the best of those new ideas and trialling them back home, it enables Westland to have a constant supply of new products, while chefs and foodservice operators have a ready source of new material for experimentation.
Discussions with chefs are regarded as being the key to identifying new trends. It is here that the majority of new trends are first identified, before they filter down through the foodservice and retail chains. As the largest grower involved in this sector, Westlands aims to work with all sections of the market, and to be very flexible in its approach. Providing ideas is a crucial part of growing the market.
Westlands is always looking for new niches – it’s an approach that appeals very much to the chefs that are closely associated with the company. And, it’s an approach the group has always adopted since it was founded in the 1980s.
As a result, Westlands has developed a track record in this respect; having begun in baby leaves, before moving onto micro leaves, edible flowers and, most recently, cultivated sea vegetables. In addition, the firm has promoted apothecary herbs, such as rue, which can add a touch of bitterness to a dish, while other unusual items have included popcorn shoots and micro melons.
“We are not afraid to try something new,” Seymour claims. “We will give it, say, three years, and if it doesn’t work, that’s it. We are always looking for the next big thing. Like chefs, we want to put unique products on the menu and to be at the start of a new trend.”
Finding such products takes time and effort, however. A lot of research is involved, as well as discussions with buyers and plant breeders, especially at exhibitions and demonstrations. Some ideas come from pure innovation on the part of breeders, or it can be the result of foraged products receiving new interest, or products being used in new ways.
“You do have to be quite careful when choosing these novel items to offer up for tasting,” Seymour admits. “It is important to make sure they are edible versions. We do a lot of very careful checks first; we do our research to ensure we get the correct variety.”
Working with chefs to identify those new, innovative trends is a long-term strategy, which is why Westlands is prepared to invest in the time needed to create the necessary relationships. Getting chefs onto its site to discuss and taste different leaves and products is seen as very important.
The provision of Westlands’ new living encyclopedia trial area is a key element in that process since it means chefs are guaranteed to find something new every time they visit.
“We are constantly asking the chefs where the trends are going as we build up those relationships and have conversations,” says Seymour. “We start with an idea and bring it into production. We might ask them: ‘Have you thought of this?’ or ‘This has a fiery texture – what do you think?’ ‘How could you use this?’ ‘What food would it complement?’.
“We ask for their feedback on herbs and all types of plants,” Seymour continues. “It all helps to generate ideas because the more you can work together with chefs, the better for everyone.”
So what are upcoming trends; the new novelties that could be the next big thing?
Westlands is currently investigating the merits of tagetes, a pretty French marigold flower that is more typically grown as an annual in the garden. The flowers have an intense citrus flavour. Chefs are showing interest in using these flowers, along with herbs and micro leaves.
Using leaves in desserts is another trend that has begun to appear, as is the use of edible flowers and leaves in drinks and cocktails. The reappearance of gin as a fashionable drink – partly as a result of the growth in places where you can produce your own – has also led to much more interest in botanicals. Plus, having a leaf in a gin and tonic adds colour and interest.
Learn more about the latest herb, micro leaf and edible flower trends by visiting Westlands at the London Produce Show and Conference 2016 on June 8-10 at the Grosvenor House hotel in Mayfair. To register your place, click here.