Here at Food Spark, we’ve noticed a slow but noteworthy rise in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern ingredients and techniques over the past year, both in foodservice and in retail.
The varied regions have been popping up as highlighted 2020 flavour trends for the industry, while last August’s Market Growth Monitor from CGA and AlixPartners revealed that, in the last five years, the number of Turkish and other Middle Eastern restaurants has increased by more than 60% in the UK to a combined 668.
Belazu, a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern ingredients supplier, has supplied both retail and foodservice for the last 30 years and are well placed to take advantage of the emerging trends from the region.
“The traditional four categories of Chinese, Indian, Italian and Mexican are either slowing, stagnating or in decline, so Waitrose are looking into other regional cuisines to offset that decline and future-proof their categories,” Belazu marketing director Chris Busher tells Food Spark.
“Middle East cuisine is one they think people at home want more of. It’s true to say that ready-meals are in decline and we’re seeing a rise of scratch cooking, which our products are perfectly designed for.”
While Ocado is Belazu’s biggest stockist, offering 52 different lines, Tesco also took on 16 Belazu products across five different categories in 2018. And, next month, this will jump to 22 products, with value being a key factor in their continued partnership.
“The reason Tesco wanted to work with us is because of the challenge the major supermarkets are facing at the moment,” explains Busher.
“Value is being squeezed by the German retailers, like Aldi and Lidl, and they wanted to up some of their categories, add value and give them a bit of a point of difference.”
Among the latest products to join the original Tesco range (which includes roasted courgette mezze, roasted aubergine mezze and roasted pepper tapenade) will be a new sun-dried tomato and balsamic paste, a rose harissa pesto, a tomato and oak-smoked paprika pesto and Beldi preserved lemons.
Waitrose, who were the first supermarket to take on Belazu’s products in 2000, has recently launched four new products (an apricot harissa, a smoked chilli harissa, shawarma paste, and “an extremely premium and high-quality tahini”).
Restaurant to retail
Belazu’s success since the launch of the company in 1991 has been down to its products’ authenticity, quality and convenience, whether they’re being used by chefs or home cooks.
Its most popular products remain its rose harissa and balsamic vinegar (Belazu is the number one harissa and balsamic vinegar brand in the UK), plus its Beldi preserved lemons (tiny North African pickled lemons).
“Although they’re very different products – a paste, a vinegar and lemons – they all have a couple of things in common which are flavour delivery (they all deliver huge amounts of flavour from a relatively small amount of ingredient), authenticity and quality of product,” says Busher.
Much of Belazu’s NPD stems from the restaurant industry, which is where the company started out, supplying fresh olives direct to top restaurants in the 90s.
Ezme and the rise of Middle Eastern
Today, the company supplies up to two thousand food service customers ranging from Michelin Star restaurants (such as Sketch and The Ledbury), right through to convenience foods producer Greencore and chains like Nando’s and Pizza Express.
“We’re constantly innovating for the foodservice world because they always want the most cutting edge, new and exciting things,” explains Busher.
“For example, our ezme paste came about because we did a food safari with 11 chefs whom we took out to Lebanon. Ezme is a key component of Lebanese cooking that we hadn’t seen in the foodservice market in the UK, so we sourced it and brought it back.
“Chefs want convenience without compromise and having something like a fresh ezme pepper paste really helps with their cooking.”
Belazu has a resident innovation chef, Henry Russell, who was formerly at North African restaurant Moro. He now works with the Belazu innovation team and talks to chefs about what products they would like to have access to.
And it doesn’t take long for a new product to become available in the shops.
“The timescale between bringing something to a fine-dining restaurant and then that ingredient making it onto the supermarket shelves used to be three-to-five years but now it can be less than a year – the supermarkets react a lot quicker to trends in the restaurant world now,” says Busher.
And a clear trend in the restaurant world right now is that of Middle Eastern cuisine, with restaurants like The Palomar, The Barbary and Ottolenghi opening consumers’ eyes to the flavours of the Middle East.
“We’re starting to see these Middle Eastern flavours appearing more and more on people’s menus, with a lot of modern European restaurants using them in their dishes,” continues Busher.
“And now it’s no longer just in restaurants that people can enjoy these flavours.
“Jamie Oliver’s last couple of books have had a significant amount of recipes that use things like harissa and preserved lemons, so when the biggest selling non-fiction author of all time starts writing about Middle Eastern ingredients, you know it’s getting to the point where it’s mainstream.”