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The changes that Covid-19 inspired in consumer behaviour over the past year have brought opportunities as well as challenges for independent retailers. One of the most fruitful positive effects has been the discovery among more and more consumers of the joy of cooking.
The likelihood of British consumers making their own dinner increased by almost 10% after the pandemic hit, according to research from consultancy Bain & Company. Around 40% of consumers said they would be eating home cooked meals more often. “Since early last year when we were ordered to stay at home and cancel our much-loved holidays, we found our customers had more free time to experiment in the kitchen, which, for many, ignited a passion for cooking,” says Matthew Blakely of the online fine food shop Blake and Tate.
“As culinary skills improve, we naturally want to use the best ingredients from across the world, and businesses like us want to make them more accessible,” he continues. Consumers are looking to be more adventurous in the kitchen and try new flavours that transport them around the world. “People miss travelling and want to experience this through food,” adds Rose Yombo-Djema, founder and CEO of Neema Food, the maker of authentic African chilli pastes.
“Taking a culinary journey to explore a holiday destination is a great way for consumers to discover new flavours and ‘travel’ whilst being at home,” Rose continues. Quality storecupboard favourites, such as pastas and cooking sauces, can elevate meals in a matter of minutes, while products with a strong link to traditional cuisines around the world will help customers satisfy their curiosity around new flavours without ever stepping foot outside the kitchen.
Italy is a firm favourite destination for British travellers, and it is no secret why. “Italy scores high for food, heritage and traditional products when it comes to travel experiences,” says Sole Nasi, brand guardian at The Fresh Pasta Company. “For decades, it has certainly been a destination spot for tourists who enjoy memorable and palatable escapades. Given the current Covid travel restrictions, we now all long more than ever to relive these experiences at home.”
This is where fine food shops come in. “Although we cannot change the course of the British weather, we can enjoy the food and wine typical from the places where we love spending our holidays and replicate our favourite moments in our own way at home,” Sole tells Speciality Food. Many delis and food halls are experts in sourcing the finest ingredients from small producers across the Mediterranean. “We feel blessed to live in a country where Italian and Continental food is widely available, and therefore can allow ourselves to travel throughout Italy led by our taste buds,” Sole says.
“Italian produce is known as the best there is,” adds Matthew, “and once they’ve been tasted, it’s hard to go back to supermarket-standard quality.” Indeed, for retailers, Italian pastas and cooking sauces can act as a gateway for shoppers into purchasing other quality ingredients. Thanks to the familiarity and versatility of pasta, it is something even the most hesitant of home cooks will feel comfortable preparing, and quality ingredients will help them taste the difference.
Even as the taste for quality home cooked meals has grown, convenience will always be a winning recipe. As we progress into the ‘new normal’ the convenience factor will become ever more important as consumers venture out of their homes again. Blending transformational tastes with simplicity makes pasta an ideal choice for mealtime. “A dish of fresh pasta is easy and quick to prepare,” Sole says. “It can be served with butter and grated Parmesan, as well as with a more elaborate vegetable, cream or meat-based sauce. It will delight both someone looking for a light supper or the one craving a heartier meal when pairing it up with a heavier sauce. It provides the perfect dish to eat al fresco or by candlelight. It is light, warming, filling and wonderfully tasty.”
Pasta’s winning qualities are numerous: convenient, versatile and full of flavour. It is a beloved dish in the UK for a reason. Yet as Sally Assinder, UK marketing manager for Garofalo Pasta states, “not all pasta is created equally”.
“Quality Italian pasta with a high protein level can make all the difference to a simple pasta dish. Look for a protein content of 12% or above and you know the pasta will remain al dente and not overcook even if a minute or two is added to the cooking time,” she explains. Authenticity is just as important for sauces. “Using a jar of pesto with ingredients that are the same as the authentic Italian recipe can make all the difference to a simple plate of pesto pasta. From a quick look at the ingredients on the side of some jars of Pesto Alla Genovese you find extra virgin olive oil subbed with sunflower oil or the addition of cashew flour in place of pine nuts – ingredients not found in the original recipe,” Sally says. “Using pesto with ingredients that match the original Italian recipe always tastes better.”
Once consumers get a taste for creating travel-inspired dishes, they will no doubt want to go even further afield, and an array of authentic cooking sauces can help them do just that. According to Maureen Suan Neo, founder of Nonya Secrets southeast Asian sauces, consumers today have a greater awareness of what’s out there in terms of cuisine. “An increased appetite for exotic, long-distance travel has to be a primary factor, as well as a whole array of food-related TV shows,” she says. Brits will “want to relive their gastronomic experiences without that disappointing ‘doesn’t taste the same’ factor – which is precisely where authentic, impeccably crafted sauces like Nonya Secrets come into their own,” she explains.
Like authentic Italian cooking sauces, Maureen says southeast Asian sauces are an important storecupboard staple. “They offer gourmet-standard meals at minimal cost and effort. A huge amount of work goes into each jar, as well as a vast array of ingredients – thereby saving the buyer not just time but money.”
From entertaining unexpected guests post-pandemic to preparing a quick weeknight meal for the family, cooking sauces are essential ingredients for the busy consumer. Yet for many, the newfound passion for home cooking will drive experimentation in the kitchen, and once again authentic sauces offer inroads. “With restaurants being closed during the pandemic, people have rediscovered the joy of cooking at home and spent more time in the kitchen experimenting with new flavours,” says Neema’s Rose. “I see this trend continuing well after Covid-19 fades as health-conscious consumers will cook more to have control over the ingredients they put in their meals,” she continues.
For Blake and Tate’s Matthew, quality pastas and cooking sauces are all about offering consumers a chance to taste the passion, love and effort that has gone into creating traditional foods over the years. “You can quite literally taste the history with every bite.”
Unheard of outside specialist stores not long ago, gluten-free foods are now stocked in every high-street supermarket.
Are more of us developing wheat intolerances, or are we simply becoming better at diagnosing an old problem? Mounting evidence points at the former and agro-industrial practices are looking guilty, as usual…
Commercial wheat faces high exposure to chemical pesticides in cultivation and storage and high temperatures in drying. Cross-bred, modified strains, resistant to pests but harder to digest, dominate the fields of the world. High levels of glyphosate and cadmium have been found in leading brands, perhaps a consequence of these common (mal)practices.
These boons for giants of the agro-industry come at a steep cost for consumers’ gut biomes, and it’s best to avoid industrially produced wheat altogether, whether you’re sensitive to gluten or not.
Artisan pasta made from organic durum wheat, following millennia of tradition, is easier to digest and has better nutrition and taste – but still contains gluten.
Pasta made from ancient grain tends to be more digestible and offers an interesting alternative to heavy wheat pasta, but not all are gluten-free. Spelt is an old favourite, and Kamut®, a grain rediscovered by a WWII airman in an Egyptian tomb, contains higher protein, vitamin, mineral, amino acid and lipid content than its modern counterparts.
Lentil and pea flour both have a particular taste profile, distinct to wheat pasta, but make for a delicious meal in their own right and are nutritious and gluten-free.
Experiments with alternative grain blends have yielded fantastic results too. Our gourmet range includes Rice & Teff, Buckwheat & Corn and Rice & Quinoa blends; delicious, certified gluten-free and highly nutritious.
Our newest pasta range, Seggiano Unbelievably Gluten-Free, is made using only corn, rice and spring water and tastes so close to the real thing that it’s simply unbelievable. The gluten-free pasta market has come a long way. Coeliacs rejoice!