Innovative chefs drive potential for speciality citrus sales

Innovative chefs drive potential for speciality citrus sales

Gill McShane
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Finger Lime Company Finger Lime 'caviar'

Although they may have been around for centuries, speciality citrus fruits like bergamot, finger limes, Meyer lemons and yuzu are growing in popularity in the UK thanks to contemporary chefs seeking to satisfy the more adventurous palates of modern day consumers. PBUK takes a closer look at what the category brings to the table and the potential to grow sales.

“Citrus is a big area for [UK] chefs looking to innovate,” states Ian Nottage, the chef director at Reynolds – a leading fruit and vegetable supplier to the UK foodservice industry.

In particular, many are discovering bergamot, finger limes, Meyer lemons and yuzu, which have only really been popular in their native countries – Italy, Australia, China and Japan respectively.

But that is starting to change, thanks to improving availability in the UK and growing awareness among chefs.

“Chefs are always keen to discover ‘new’ ingredients and flavours,” Nottage points out. “And consumers are always eager to try something different, especially the younger generations.

“As these types of ingredients become more readily available, chefs are starting to experiment more and incorporate them into different styles of cuisine.”

While speciality citrus fruits are mainly used by the high-end restaurant sector at present, there is potential for some to go mainstream.

“For the more expensive citrus like finger limes, Meyer lemon and yuzu it is predominantly the high end, fine dining restaurants which start the trend,” Nottage explains.

“However, as the flavours are getting more accessible through things like purées, essences and compounds, they are now starting to become more mainstream.”

Tesco has already welcomed to its Finest range Meyer lemons from California via importer MMUK, and last year Waitrose introduced bergamot through its supplier Primafruit.

Bergamot

Natoora bergamot

But it was specialist fresh produce supplier Natoora that claims to have first brought fresh bergamot to the UK market in 2009. Following success on the restaurant scene, the company sees potential for the retail market.

“Although relatively unknown in the kitchen at this time, chefs were immediately intrigued by this intensely perfumed product,” says Fede Cervellin, head buyer at Natoora.

“Since then, we’ve seen steady growth in restaurant sales, with chefs anticipating the fruit for their menus before it arrives. We’re working to generate similar awareness with retail customers.”

Yuzu

The same is true of yuzu, which is increasingly popular among chefs and now food manufacturers looking to use the fruit in ice cream and drinks.

“We have a long list of yuzu fans who have asked to be advised as soon as fresh yuzu becomes available,” says Jon Old, general manager of The Wasabi Company, which supplies the fresh fruit, juice, purée and yuzu trees themselves.

“Interest and sales are increasing every year,” Old adds. “Fresh yuzu juice is available all year round and this is gaining in popularity with sales increasing 200% year-on-year.

“Supermarket sales may be a year or two away, but we expect this to be the next logical step in select stores.”

Finger limes

Reynolds Finger limes

Interest is also growing in finger limes; a native Australian citrus fruit found in the subtropical rainforest around the New South Wales-Queensland border.

Ian Douglas of the Lime Caviar Company – a major grower and Australia’s leading exporter – is seeing rapid sales growth across the globe.

“World demand for fresh and frozen finger limes is more than doubling each year and I see no end to that for a long time,” forecasts Douglas, who directly supplies restaurants, hotels, caterers, providores and home foodies both domestically and internationally.

“As yet we haven’t been able to secure a direct importer in the UK. There’s been a lot of talk but not much action. However, I’m told our fresh finger limes do reach the UK via Holland.”

Going mainstream

Reynolds Blood orange bergamot yuzu and finger lime surprise med res

Ultimately, the mainstream potential for these products depends on how well the industry can drive awareness of the citrus category as a whole, according to Cervellin at Natoora.

“Right now, people expect to see completely yellow lemons or orange oranges,” he points out. “In reality, citrus displays different characteristics depending on the variety and at what point in the season it’s picked.

“For example, the essential oil in bergamot skin is at its peak when the fruit is still green and unripe. However, the juice inside turns less bitter when the fruit is yellow. But bergamot becomes less interesting further into its season because the oils are far less pronounced.”

Price will play a role in market development as well, according to chef Nottage, who agrees it will be sometime before these less-well-known citrus fruits are commonplace in the UK.

“Citrus fruits such as blood oranges, bergamot, pomelo and kaffir limes are more reasonably priced and, as such, have a wider appeal across different sectors,” he notes.

“However, there’s still a long way to go before they are as widely used as, say, mandarins, grapefruit or regular lemons and limes.”

Douglas also believes price is a big factor for UK expansion.

“Sales will take off in the UK if we find an importer,” he says, “but at the end of the day it comes down to the price chefs will pay. In the UK they seem to be much less inclined to buy [finger limes] than chefs say in France and Italy.”

On the other hand, Douglas believes his new, award-winning frozen seedless and spoonable finger lime pearls with no additives, colourings or preservatives will be very successful when launched in mid-February 2018.

“We have customers lined up already in Holland, France, Italy, Spain, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Canada and the US,” he reveals.

Myriad of uses

Reynolds Meyer lemon

From a usage point of view, speciality citrus fruits lend themselves to a whole host of dishes, and each has something unique to offer.

“Chefs will use the different flavour notes to different effects,” explains chef Nottage, noting that Reynolds does a “delicious” a yuzu-cured salmon, which is much like a ceviche.

“Yuzu is an essential element of Japanese cuisine,” adds Old from The Wasabi Company. “European chefs have embraced its famously tart juice in dishes as wide ranging as fish and white meat, to sorbets, ice creams and cheesecakes.

“Yuzu juice and zest are also big hits with the cocktail crowd.”

As for creamy desserts, Nottage claims almost any citrus flavour works well, such as a Meyer lemon tart or a blood orange posset.

“The best way to demonstrate the contrast is to make a lemon tart with regular lemons and one with Meyer lemons to really taste the difference,” Nottage explains.

Finger limes are ideal for desserts or canapés. Douglas from The Lime Caviar Company claims top chefs from Lyon to Sydney are all raving about the fruit and its myriad of culinary uses.

“Rene Redzepi [the Danish chef and co-owner of the two-Michelin star restaurant Noma in Copenhagen] was supplied with our finger limes for his pop-up in Sydney last year; he thinks them to be the best,” he explains.

“Finger limes can be used with seafood (on oysters or with sushi and sashimi), salads, carpaccio, desserts, yoghurt and ice cream. They are also fabulous in Champagne, gin & tonic or vodka.”

Bergamot, meanwhile, can be used in dressings, cooking and baking, according to Cervellin at Natoora. “Their unusual flavour and aroma adds a new dimension to dishes,” he claims.

Unique attributes

In terms of their individual characteristics, bergamot, finger limes, Meyer lemons and yuzu are all fairly unique.

Slightly rounder than a lemon, bergamot is intensely perfumed. Its skin is green and packed with essential oils that give out floral, uplifting, crisp aromas. The pulp is sour, acidic and slightly bitter.

“Bergamot obviously smells like Earl Grey tea, whilst yuzu is very floral and extremely sour,” Nottage describes.

Yuzu is known as ‘The King of Citrus’, notes Old. “The juice combines grapefruit and mandarin flavours with unrivalled zest,” he claims. “The skin of the fresh fruit carries a powerful hit of citrus with a striking, floral aroma.”

The Meyer lemon is also very floral, according to Nottage. “Flavour-wise, however, it sits somewhere between an orange and a lemon and is way more complex (both in aroma and taste) than classic Eureka or Primafiori types,” he says.

Finger limes have many health benefits; they are rich in vitamin C, folate and antioxidants. “They were used by aboriginals as a food additive and medicinally (on the skin),” Douglas notes.

But its most extraordinary attribute lies beneath the skin – hundreds of lime juice-filled pearls which Douglas says burst in the mouth, delivering a “unique explosion of flavour”.

“The colour of these pearls varies from variety to variety, and can be opaque, yellow, green, pink, orange or red and shades in between,” he explains.

Availability

Predominantly viewed as winter fruits, bergamot, finger limes, Meyer lemons and yuzu are largely available through to spring, but there are variations.

For example, the Australian finger lime season runs from late November to early June, but the fruit is now grown in California, Hawaii, Sicily, Israel, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam and possibly other locations; providing close to year-round availability.

France recently started growing Meyer lemons, although the majority of production is located in the US, particularly California.

The yuzu is grown principally in Asia (China, Japan and Korea included) and the distance from the UK makes it a very “expensive and troublesome” fruit to import, according to Nottage at Reynolds.

Sales of fresh yuzu are also limited by its short season (November to early January), which is why The Wasabi Company is working with Spanish growers to increase availability in the UK.

Like blood oranges, it is said that the best bergamots come from the Calabria region of Italy, where the fruit is grown almost exclusively between late September and January.

Bergamot is difficult to buy directly from growers, whereas they are more readily available through Italian wholesalers.

“We’ve worked hard to establish relationships with two growers to source this product direct,” notes Cervellin at Natoora.

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