Micro herbs are top of the crops, according to Charles Foster. What started as a trend in top-echelon fine dining has now filtered down through the industry, to the extent that it’s not uncommon to find micro parsley and micro coriander in pubs.
“The trend is massively toward micro herbs now. We sell hardly any herbs, whereas five years ago you’d sell boxes and boxes of rosemary, thyme parsley, sage, everything,” he adds.
Foster is part of the family that runs Turnips, a wholesaler and retailer founded in 1989. Based out of Borough Market, they sell directly to the public as well as supplying a variety of foodservice establishments, including highfliers like Le Gavroche and Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester.
Since Foster started in the family business six years ago, he says he’s noticed a rising demand for edible garnishes, including flowers such as apple blossom, viola, chive flower, pea blossom, fennel flower and broad bean flowers, as well as sea herbs.
Above all, however, there is a much wider array of produce available. As consumers open their minds to the diversity of fruit and veg out there, a lot more obscure varieties are making an appearance. Turnips, for example, regularly sell three kinds of their namesake root vegetable (golden, purple and Tokyo) as well as four different types of radish (black, watermelon, red meat and green meat). Nasturtium and okra are regularly requested.
But the biggest change at the company is not what they stock, but how they sell it.
From leftovers to lunch
Food waste has become an increasingly concerning issue for the public, with Wrap estimating that 300,000m tonnes of edible food is chucked away by retail and wholesale.
While all food companies produce waste, Turnips has been mulling over how to reduce the amount that gets chucked away when it starts to wilt. The solution has been to turn the leftovers into meals under a concept dubbed Turnips Kitchen.
It started out with smoothies, but has since morphed into mushroom risottos, pizzas and grilled asparagus – “whatever is big and booming and in season,” as Foster puts it.
“It’s about challenging the perception of what a waste product is,” he adds. “For me, if a mushroom has gone slightly over and it’s a little bit wrinkly, that is not a waste product, but you can’t sell that as first class to a restaurant, you can’t sell that on the retail – people turn their noses up at it.”
Turnips Kitchen is described by Foster as one of the business’ most exciting new initiatives, using up unsold fruit and veg while also giving customers some inspiration for how to cook more unusual ingredients. While it’s currently limited to pop-ups with a street food vibe, down the line the family hope to turn the idea into a proper restaurant.
Signalling how serious they are about the idea, they have brought in Pip Sandrey (formerly head chef at Aqua Shard and previously at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal) as chef ambassador. There’s also a team of chefs constantly working on how to transform the ever-changing seasonal stock into tasty dishes.
Turnips also hopes to encourage a “two-season mentality”: selling the fresh fruit and veg when it’s ripe and then selling preserves made from that produce when it’s out of season, whether that’s preserves, sauces or dehydrated mushrooms.
Bringing back British suppliers
Foster isn’t short of unusual produce recommendations, whether its Tulameen raspberries, pineapple tomatoes or Caesar mushrooms, which he describes as related to ceps, but rarer: “It’s got more of a rich flavour. It looks a little bit uglier to be honest, but the flavour is spectacular!”
With many of these items, Foster points out that while the cost may be more, the taste is more intense, which means less is needed to get the same punch of flavour.
But are they veg grown in Britain? It’s an important consideration, considering one survey last year found that, after price, ingredients and provenance were the most important detail consumers wanted to see on menus.
“Everyone wants a bit of British stuff. The issue we have is, especially in top restaurants, they also want top quality stuff. It has to be the best,” says Foster. “The issue we’ve got in this country is that we have very few top independent farms left. It’s mass-produced farms that have a tight relationship with supermarkets, and they’ve been able to buy out all their neighbouring fields. What that means is we have less variety, less top quality; it becomes much harder for someone like me to find really good English farmers to use.”
One of Turnips’ ongoing ambitions is to include more independent English suppliers on the roster, but finding distinctive, high-quality goods can be a challenge.
“For example, butterhead salads: 10 years ago, every English farmer had that and another lettuce called Webbs Wonderful. Now, you can only buy that from the continent, because they’re the only ones that are willing to pay the money and still protect their independent farms that are willing to grow it.”
However, Foster notes that with evolving consumer tastes, there seems to be an opportunity for different varieties of produce to return to these shores.
“Joe Public are much more interested in food now, that’s a fact in this country. If that trend continues, there’s hope. If people are demanding nicer and nicer products, there’s more scope for these farmers to do that again.”