Celebrity chefs, cookery books and cocktail bars are helping to raise awareness of the various culinary uses of herbs, other than their traditional employment as a sassy garnish for fish dishes. With sales up and innovation all the buzz, the herb market has much to offer buyers. Produce Business UK takes a look at where the demand lies and why
Heavily tattooed fingers are curled around the delicate stem of a cocktail glass containing an almost fluorescent red mixture, with a smattering of green leaves on top. The fingers belong to a bearded drinker in Brighton’s Be At One cocktail bar, and the mixture he is lapping up is called a Basil Grande.
The popularity of cocktails has long since migrated outside of metropolitan areas, with seaside, rural, and provincial establishments offering a menu of drinks that are now increasingly following the trend of using fresh herbs as a unique selling point.
This consumer appetite for herbs is not limited to drinks, however. With the influence of chefs and cookery books, alongside the desire to follow a healthy diet, there’s demand for herbs to be used in salads or ready meals, and as ‘from-scratch’ cooking ingredients, as well as an alternative flavouring for foods where salt has been reduced or removed entirely.
Tony Reid, head of marketing at Vitacress, which supplies over 16 million fresh living potted herbs each year, plus more than 23 million packs of fresh cut and bunched herbs per year, says that unit sales of fresh herbs are up by 3.1% over 2014.
Mint is pick of the crop
“Traditional herbs such as mint, dill, curly and flat leaf parsley and chives are all experiencing growth in the market,” he adds. “Research from Vitacress [conducted by One Poll amongst 2,000 UK adults on August 5-8, 2014] shows that 40% of people say they are more adventurous in the kitchen and 30% are making more dishes inspired by world cuisine – this might explain why there is a slight decline in sales of herbs such as rosemary and thyme.
“Figures show that mint is the herb of the moment, with sales of mint experiencing a 5.2% year-on-year growth in July,” Reid continues. “The growth in total fresh mint, which amounted to more than 83,000 extra units compared with the same time last year, has been predominantly driven through the cut herb segment.
Reid says the boost in sales is attributable to rising consumer interest in using mint in drinks, such as mint tea, and the growing trend of smoothies and cocktails that feature mint, such as the Mojito, which rose swiftly up the cocktail charts a decade ago and has retained its popularity since.
While rosemary may often be passed over in the kitchen, in the world of the mixologist, the herb is proving very popular. This summer, botanical drinks company Fentimans launched a pop-up bar on the third floor of L’Escargot restaurant in London’s Soho. Inspired by Victorian greenhouses, the bar offered cocktails incorporating the Fentimans range, but mixed with a variety of fresh herbal ingredients.
“A botanical garnish can really enhance the flavours of a cocktail,” says Fentimans event marketing manager Jaala Pickering. “The most popular being mint, basil and rosemary – all of which are easy to purchase and use at home. More complicated flavours such as lavender and thyme are more complex to pair and a little harder to source, but can still add to the flavours of a simple cocktail.
“I think people are getting more creative with their drinks at home after gaining inspiration from what they see bartenders do in the trade. A popular drink I have seen and then re-created is a simple tequila and Fentimans Victorian Lemonade served with rosemary infused ice cubes. This was easy to create at home by simply adding rosemary to hot water, letting it infuse then adding the liquid to an ice tray and freezing.”
Frozen herbs are untapped
The format for selling herbs has also helped to boost interest, with potted fresh herbs cutting down waste while offering consumers the feel-good factor that they’re adding a healthy ingredient to their dishes. However, frozen fresh herbs have not been as exploited by producers.
Upscale retailer Waitrose does offer a selection in its Cooks range, but an Australian herb farmer might offer further inspiration with the development of its frozen cubes of fresh herbs. Adfresh Farms, based in Queensland, launched the product in the Coles chain of Australian supermarkets this month.
Sebastian and Cyrene Torrisi, who own Adfresh Farms, say the product comes in response to consumer demand for fresh, but convenient ingredients, especially among younger consumers.
Reid at Vitacress points out that there’s a growing opportunity for herbs with the younger generation who are becoming more interested in scratch cooking and entertaining too. According to Waitrose, one of its best performing ranges this year is the selection of ‘grow your own’ fruit, vegetables and fresh herbs.
The survey commissioned by Vitacress also revealed where this interest is coming from, not just with younger generations but the overall upsurge in scratch cooking. The results showed that when it comes to what influences the food we cook and enjoy at home it was cookery books (37%) that came top, followed by celebrity chefs and TV cookery programmes (31%) and friends and family (30%).
Coriander has strong chef backing
Reid adds that coriander continues to be the UK’s best-selling herb as the popularity of Asian cuisine continues, and again this is down to chefs.
“This is probably due to its popularity with celebrity chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi, Tom Kerridge and Jamie Oliver. In [the One Poll] analysis of 21 top cookery books, coriander is the most referenced herb – with 285 mentions across all of the books,” he comments.
“There is an increase in the use of herbs in prepared salads. Interestingly, rocket was launched as a salad but is widely recognised as an herb. The UK market value for prepared salads has increased by 40% since 2008.
“Data also shows that UK consumers are becoming more adventurous with their salads with figures showing household penetration of prepared salad leaves is 76%. The increase in sales of prepared salads is attributed to the modern consumer having a greater disposable income, but less time.”
Alistair Whitaker, category manager for Freshtime – a supplier of chilled, value added, ready to eat vegetable and salad products to the retail trade – agrees that UK consumers are looking for more than just leaves in their prepared salads. And he says that not only will we see more herbs in the mix, but also edible flowers. “[For example] bergamot being added for a citrus fragrance,” he predicts.
“There’s also Vietnamese coriander [also known as Vietnamese mint or Cambodian mint], that is not related to the mint family but it’s general appearance and odour are reminiscent, which is good with chicken salad. We’ll also see wild herbs such as garlic and fennel seeds.”
With hipster bars from Leicester to Lebanon promoting the use of fresh herbs, and chefs leading foodies down new paths of culinary delight, now could be a good time for buyers to start infusing their bottom line with a few more herbs.