Developing food for the festive periods is one of the activities product developers love.
No matter where you go in the world you will find people celebrating special days. Whether the celebrations are for religious events or for the start of a new year, a birthday or an achievement, they each have their own traditions. Some traditions are universal, like Santa Claus at Christmas, or regional like mulled wine in the north of Europe or event specific to a family. One thing though remains a constant and this is that food accompanies every single one of them and takes centre stage.
Festive celebrations can be a tremendous inspiration for a product developer. Whether they are recreating traditional recipes, introducing new twists, or designing lovely festive packaging, developers can let their imagination go wild. I remember creating a new indulgent chocolate biscuit that was going to be the centre piece in a new biscuit selection. It was being created especially, for the new millennium. It had to really stand out in both flavour and texture. A great flavour that would go perfectly with a glass of champagne at the stroke of midnight, but also with a cup of coffee or tea in the following days . Creating a signature flavour is no mean feat. How do you get to something that is new, positive, sparkly, fragrant. Oh and did I mention that as it is always the case with food it had to also be delicious ? Both recognisable and surprising at the same time. I was in almost daily conversation with the flavour house that was working on the project with me. We must have tried more than a hundred combinations, some fruity, some herbal, some floral. We even entered the world of perfumes, I distinctly remember presenting this “wonderful new aroma called neroli” to my marketing colleague.
Big events and festive periods are great times for inspiration and creativity. Will you go for a traditional mince pie or will you create a mincemeat filled donut. How will you infuse these flavours into a loose leaf tea? The possibilities are endless, although I would probably draw the line putting a dollop of mincemeat on spaghetti (see Elf the movie).
Then again What If (the two most powerful words) we made plain homemade pasta and filled it with some mincemeat, boil and then drizzle with cinnamon syrup, grate some lemon and sprinkle some roasted chopped nuts on top… Who says that pasta has to be savoury!
The world of product development will never be boring so long as there are festivals and celebrations, each with their own traditions and foods.
With science telling us that a healthy gut is key to both physical and mental health, good gut food is a trend that is here to stay.
Last week I attended the excellent annual Food and Beverage Trends Summit organised by the food people https://thefoodpeople.co.uk/trends-event-2020 . One of the trends that stood out for me was gut health. What started a few years ago as a niche market with probiotic dairy drinks, is now firmly established as an area of opportunity as well as an area of responsible/ethical food manufacture, especially when it comes to creating and marketing healthier foods.
Two years ago I remember opening a panel discussion on food trends at the NPD food&drink conference in London, with the lesser known fact that we all carried about 2kg of microbes in our gut, that held the key to a lot of our wellbeing. Two years on, science is telling us that a diverse and healthy micro biome can protect us from some of the most common lifestyle diseases and ….wait for it….can even help improve our mood!
A number of the speakers last week talked about good gut food, and in particular registered nutritionist Beth Edwards. It is worth watching her session https://youtu.be/Ln6uDO9i49g There are two ways we can look after these lovely microbes in our gut. One way is by adding some more through probiotic drinks, live yoghurts and other raw fermented food like kimchi. The other way is by feeding them food they love, which is lots of different whole grains, fruit and veg.
We are seeing more and more products that claim they can contribute to a healthy gut. The dairy and alternative dairy sector is already booming with live cultures and new products but now the breakfast cereal sector is following suit with bacteria friendly food. Even big players like Kellogg’s are following the trend. This year’s winner of the Grocer’s Chefs and restauranteurs are also starting to promote such food through their menu and through their books. Some doctors and nutritionists are also trying to reach the general population to explain the benefits of a healthy gut and how the food we eat can support this. Search for Gut under diets and healthy eating on Amazon books and you get 75 pages.
I could go on and on, but I think you’ve got the gist. This is a trend that as product developers we need to incorporate into our developments and help it to move from trend to mainstream.
The packaging format can affect a product’s shelf life
Some events get lodged into your brain and stay with you forever. They become your “I learnt the hard way kid…” (imagine a tough Hollywood actor saying this line) or “In my days, we always used to …” (for this line, imagine your granddad or grandma saying it) stories. This story is one of these events and learnings that even though it happened about 30 years ago it stayed with me. And it was not even my project at the time, but a very talented colleague’s of mine.
Imagine you have this great biscuit which has been around for years and everybody loves it. It is penny stacked in a roll wrap, in other words one biscuit is on top of another and they are tightly wrapped in plastic film. Great if you are at home, you can take one out and eat it and put the rest in whatever container you use as the biscuit barrel (If you are reading this and don’t live in Britain, the biscuit barrel is not a barrel at all. It is just a small container that dreams of being a barrel !). But what if you are out and about?
The idea was groundbreaking in the UK biscuit and snacks market at the time. It sound obvious now, “Let’s make the biscuits smaller and put some of them in a little bag.” but it did create a brand new category at the time. Anyway I digress, this is about the techie dimension of the project not the marketing one. Same recipe, same process, same packaging material, so same shelf life. Right?… WRONG! The shelf life of the new product was significantly reduced, main reason being … you’ve guest it, there was MORE AIR in the pack! Of course there are things a food technologist can do to compensate for all this air bathing the product from all sides, and this is what we did. But I learnt that air, with all its ability to creep into the pack through the tiniest of holes, with its lovely oxygen and moisture, is a force to be reckoned with. The first thing I will always do is start a shelf life test in the right pack format, as soon as it is possible.
Some recipes can be a “blank canvas”, ready for you to add your personal touch and experiment.
It is World Kindness Day today, so I thought what better random act of kindness than to share a recipe that is very dear to me for three reasons: A. it is my Scottish mum in law’s, who was a person that was always so kind to everyone B. it is so incredibly easy to make and more importantly, to remember by heart C. it tastes great
So here it is, just remember 200, 200, 100, 100 the magic weight in grams of flour, butter (of course, none of this margarine stuff), sugar (caster), corn flour. These quantities will make about 40 small pieces.
Put all ingredients in one bowl and gently rub them together. It’s very quick and you don’t need any utensils, just your hands. It is very therapeutic having all these ingredients going through your fingers. Gradually, as if by magic they turn from a crumble into a lovely soft dough. DO NOT work the dough , you are not making bread. The gluten needs to stay as underdeveloped as possible.
At this point you can take this very old recipe spread it in a baking tray and make shortbread. But what is the fun in that? The role of any product developer is to try a few what if’s (see a previous post of mine with an extract from a great food film). This recipe is like a blank canvas. So “what if these ingredients were also added” :
I added one tsp of fennel seeds and the same of ground cardamom and half a tsp of caraway seeds. Gently press the dough in a baking tin, about 1 cm thick, then use a fork to open some ventilation holes for the steam and bake for at least 40min, I go for 140C in the middle of a fan assisted oven. When you take it out of the oven, cut it into pieces while still in the tin and sprinkle with some caster sugar, or apply the “what if” principle and use sugar infused with spice.
The best food is simple and authentic and good enough for the highest office.
What a week this has been! Talk about an election thriller! Who would have thought that three days after the US Election Day we would still not have a winner. In this presidential election state of mind, I remembered “Haute Cuisine” a.k.a.“Les saveurs du Palais” , a lovely French film that tells the story of Daniele Delpeuch, a self taught provincial cook, who in the late 80’s was asked by President Mitterrand of France to be his personal cook at the Élysée Palace. After 7 years in the helm of the country and at the start of his second term, the President has had enough of pretentious and over complicated food.
What the President is after is simple and authentic food made with the best that France has to offer.
Local, fresh, simple and authentic food will allow you to have an “Anton Ego from Ratatouille” moment (see past blog ), or simply help you relax, refresh and enjoy, getting you ready to go back to your busy life even if you are the President. A great product developer will start with a simple recipe and then build on it, adding only what adds value (functional or emotional) for the recipient.
I don’t know who prepares Donald Trump’s and Joe Biden’s meals, but I hope their food provides not only sustenance, but also helps them relax and think calmly.
All Hallows Eve, the evening before All Hallows’ day. A day dedicated to remembering the dead, including all saints. How better to remember those loved ones that have left us, than by cooking favourite recipes. My godmother used to make a fabulous pumpkin pie with filo pastry. Talk about getting your five a day…well with a good dose of sugar at the same time!
Crispy filo rolls with sweet and cinnamony (is there such a word?) pumpkin filling, drizzled with a cinnamon and clove syrup. Very easy to make and you can also freeze it before you bake it, ready to bake another day.
Let me know if you want the recipe. #halloween #productdevelopment #recipes
Moisture migration in composite products can pose challenges
You may learn about moisture migration at uni, but it’s not until you experience what it can do to a lovely chocolate covered snack that you say “Respect!”, or like a old colleague of mine used to say “Ignore it at your peril”.
So here is the thing, take a lovely, crunchy, crispy biscuit. Put a dollop (this is a technical term, LOL!) of real freshly prepared oozing caramel. Then cover the whole thing in shiny, snappy (when set of course) chocolate 🍫. We are talking real chocolate here, not chocolate flavoured coating. You won’t have to wait long to see what happens next. Within a few days it will start to crack.
“But I did not see this on the samples I made in the lab!” I remember saying and scratching my head. Then my colleague reminder me that I had built up biscuit and caramel one day and put the chocolate on a day later…All this lovely moisture moving around and settling before putting on the chocolate.
There are things one can do to avoid it of course, answers on a postcard please, but best to consider all this early in a project, before factory trials.
“…200 years is long enough…” or what makes a good product developer !
Every time I was asked to talk about what makes a good product developer I would either start or end with a clip from this great food film “The 100 Foot Journey”. The young chef working in the kitchen of a French Michelin start restaurant “dares” to experiment with a two hundred year old recipe…
There is no such thing as a sacred cow, or for that mater a sacred recipe. A product developer needs to be a lot of things, passionate, knowledgeable, skilful, hard working… but if they are not curious and experimental, then that great tasting multi million pound new product, will stay forever illusive.
I love that scene. If nothing else, it make me feel better every time my experimentation would yield unpalatable results (yes, there were some over the years, it happens to us all). “At least now I know!” was my standard line. The rest of the film is very good, too. It is the story of a young Indian cook and his family that move to France for a better life and open a restaurant across the road from a Micheline start French restaurant in a small town . The two very different styles of cooking and dining clash at first, or rather the people clash until misconceptions and biases are disproven and the simple truth that Indian and French cuisine, each wonderful in its own right, can coexist and so can the people. I do think that they have missed a trick though by not publishing a book with the recipes. #ProductDevelopment #FoodFilms #FoodTechnology
OK here’s the thing, there are currently 690 million people that are going hungry in the world* (source FAO). The number has been going the wrong way, and unfortunately Covid-19 is estimated to add another 83 – 132 million to it. This is making the target the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) set, to eliminate hunger by 2030, more of a moonshot than a possibility. So, happy world food day and blah blah blah. Let’s all pour another cup of coffee or glass of wine, depending on what time you are reading this, and have another bite of our all butter croissant or handful of crisps. The end…
But the story can have a different ending. Each and every one of us can refuse to go with the first version of the story and choose a different ending. There is a lot we can do, as individuals, organisations and businesses. Every one of us can – Chose local – Chose seasonal – Chose healthy and diverse – your gut will love you, trust me – Grow food at home – try it, what’s the worst that can happen ? – Respect food and all those food heroes in these Covid-19 days – don’t waste food – Support initiatives related to good nutrition, eg. school meals – Volunteer at food related support initiatives such as food banks – Be an influencer – you have social media, you have friends, you have a voice. Use it, talk about healthy food choices, ask decision makers to transform our food system (The FAO website explains it better than me and has some great resources to engage kids, too. http://www.fao.org/world-food-day/take-action/en/) Then a few years from now, in a Covid free world, with the number of those going hungry shrinking , we can pour ourselves another fare trade sustainable cup of coffee and say, with a cheeky little smile on our face, happy world food day! The end…
NB and if you are lucky enough to be a product developer then you can do so much on so many levels.
*Yes, this is the same world that also had 650 million obese people in 2016 (source World Health Organisation) and let’s not mention the number of overweight because it is eye watering! But this is a discussion for another time.
Food has the magical power to bring back wonderful memories
Food has this magical power to transport you to a place and a time at first taste. It’s really magic! One bite or one sip can take you from a rainy London to a sunny beach. It can revive memories and emotions like this scene in Ratatouille when Anton Ego, the feared critic, has one bite of Remy’s ratatouille and travels back to his childhood. He feels the same warmth and security as when he was with his mother. This memory is enough to melt his heart and change his mood. This is the magic of food. This is why, in my humble opinion, this is the best food film scene ever. As a product developer, a chef or a home cook we have the power to transport people (hopefully to a good memory!).