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A dollop of onion relish with bolshy, aged farmhouse Cheddar. Floral pear chutney with a sliver of brie. A spoonful of sharp pickles to cut through a platter of salami. Preserves are one of the bedrocks of fine food retail, with the ability to elevate any dish. At Christmas time, they really come into their own, transforming the festive lunch, and late-night leftovers.
Stocking a good selection, combining old favourites, with enticing new varieties, and sampling regularly, showcasing the versatility in each jar, is crucial this season.
Times are tough for independent producers, who’ve (like every other industry) had to battle rising energy, ingredient, and even glass costs.
The message from the smaller, artisan maker, who can offer traceability, supreme quality, and a point of difference on your shelves is, ‘use us or lose us’.
Chef and chutney/pickle producer Candi Robertson of Candi’s Chutney, says sourcing has been difficult for her in the last 18 months. “Because, like many others, we only use British produce, it’s been tough. We had the weather against us last year, with the heat, which has impacted us this year. We’re forever having to think outside of the box. I’ll put my order in on a Monday for sugar, and by Thursday, the price will have gone up by 100%.”
In a move taken by many others across the supply and production chain, Candi says she’s had to nudge up prices – the first time, for her, in six years. “We had to, to continue to be a viable business. There’s no choice.”
Candi says higher prices shouldn’t put buyers off working with independent producers like her, who are able to very quickly adapt their product lines to the seasons, or to pivot if a key ingredient is no longer available. “We’ve had to learn to be very creative,” she adds. “If a retailer wants to try something new, we can do it for the next week, which is something larger companies can’t do. We can offer bespoke products. In fact, at the moment we’re doing a lot of white label work for larger companies who realise their money is better invested in someone else making their products on a smaller scale, in smaller batches, for better quality and consistency.”
In terms of trends, Candi says it’s that word - ‘quality’ - that’s absolutely key, particularly at Christmas, when customers may up their spend, seeking a treat. “I think, at that time of year, people are willing to pay for what they get. And, like always, they like a story, and to know who’s behind what they’re buying. Small businesses can give them all that information.”
Candi sees a key ingredient in preserves going into Q3 and Q4 being alcohol. “We’ve really pushed the boat out and launched three new products this year, all alcohol based. People have had a hard time in the last year, and we know they will want to be a bit more indulgent where they can. They will buy a decent piece of cheese rather than a piece of plastic, and will spend more on gammon, for example. People also want to sit down with sharing platters and charcuterie and grazing boards, and pickles and chutneys are a key part of those.”
Look out, says Candi, for chutney infused with ale, cider, or Port wine, this season.
But, she adds, it’s always important to stock a few very good, well-made traditional chutneys. “People love a bit of ‘different’, but with money being limited, they also want to spend on products they recognise and understand. Umami and miso are great, but 90% of Joe public don’t understand them.”
Sampling is absolutely crucial to the Christmas selling season, allowing retailers to explain new products, and share their old favourites, with customers. Getting producers into store can make a huge difference too, says Candi. “We have such a wealth of information about our products that we can share with customers. We can tell them which crackers might go with what we make…or suggest a cheese…that can all help boost sales. At the end of the day, we’re all here to sell products, and if we can do it together, there’s power in that!”
If your shop is on the smaller side, and hosting a producer for sampling might prove tricky, Candi says getting to know your stock is even more crucial. And, again, that’s down to having in-depth conversations with the makers.
“We can give retailers lots of advice to pass on to customers. That onion marmalade can boost a lacklustre gravy, the leftover spoonfuls of Christmas piccalilli can be baked into a quiche base, or traditional chutney mixed with sausagemeat makes the best sausage rolls. Chutneys and pickles can be used in a lot of different ways – not just dolloped on the side of the plate.”
As Candi says, charcuterie boards and grazing tables are big news. And often it’s what sits alongside the star attractions (cheese and cured meat) that can make or break a platter. Increasingly consumers are looking to ‘up their game’, seeking the likes of truffle honey, gourmet nuts and dried fruit and, of course, a range of decadent chutneys and pickles.
This is one of the reasons Godminster decided to introduce a series of new chutneys to its product line this year, says head of marketing, Sarah Norris.
“We don’t just want to be selling truckles,” she explains. “We had to think about who our end customers were and how we can add to their experience. Cheese is fantastic on its own, but we’ve seen a huge trend for grazing boards. People aren’t just going out and buying a blue, a white mould and a Cheddar, they’re being super-creative with flavours, textures and colour. So we wanted to think about how we could help elevate their experience and, for us chutney was key. What is cheese without chutney?”
Key to the development was recognising that tradition, and the classics, are still important. “We weren’t going to reinvent the category. We wanted to make some fun, quirky flavours, but realised people come back time and time again to those classics.”
Taking something recognisable and giving it a twist, has proved the way to success, with the brand launching a Sticky Fig Chutney and Cider Apple Jelly, to sit alongside its traditional Beetroot and Apple chutney, which has been made to the same recipe for a decade.
Sarah agrees that sampling is important – partnering chutneys and pickles in stores with ingredients that complement and enhance them. Fig chutneys, for example, she says make an excellent partner for truffle cheese, really elevating the flavour. “Fig chutney with a truffle brie is transformative. There’s just something magical that happens when you put those two flavours together.”
Cider-based chutneys and jellies could be paired in tastings with smoked and traditional farmhouse cheeses. “Also think about pairing products from the same territory or geography together in store. If you’re in Somerset a good hunk of Cheddar with apple chutney speaks of the West Country.”
Sarah says the importance of chutneys and pickle sales at Christmas shouldn’t be underestimated. Not only do customers align them with a sense of luxury, but there is also a nostalgic hook too. “Those traditional flavours are evocative and comforting and rich and people will naturally buy them to go with their Boxing Day leftovers or in leftovers sandwiches.”
Sample these, she advises, alongside ‘modern and funky’ flavours that can bring something different to the Christmas table. “Mango chutney could be a trade up for the caramelised onion relish most of us know and love.
“Cross selling and thinking about pairings is a no-brainer. Customers want to be inspired at this time of year, and to be steered towards what goes with what. Make it as easy as possible for them to understand your chutney selection and what each one could go with.”