Micro vegetables may well have entered the mainstream restaurant trade but there remains a lack of understanding among chefs about the most effective and appropriate usage of products like micro cress, micro herbs, micro greens and speciality leaves. Produce Business UK talks to Koppert Cress – a pioneering micro producer based in the Netherlands – about how the firm is working to change its end users’ approach to micros to help chefs get the most of its continually progressive offer of exciting and innovative flavours
“There’s a lot of information about the micro world – it’s huge globally,” begins trained chef, Paul da Costa Greaves, the country manager for the UK and Republic of Ireland at Koppert Cress. “Chefs automatically think they should add micros for a visual effect but that has no significance for a dish. Some just ‘chuck’ it on a dish and think it’ll do wonders, but it doesn’t.”
Da Costa Greaves says micros are very powerful in terms of their flavour (and their nutritional value), so incorrect pairing can, in fact, “destroy” a dish. “For example, people use a lot of basil and its flavours can be diminished,” he explains. “We have a micro basil that’s an heirloom variety. It goes well with rapeseed oil and mozzarella and it’s packed full of nutrients.”
Education is crucial to understanding a product and its usage, according to da Costa Greaves. In his role he works very closely with UK and Irish wholesalers and end users – Michelin- or Rosette-starred chefs – as well as foodservice operators and events companies.
By visiting them in-situ and also inviting both student and trained chefs to take part in the company’s Cressperience educational programme, his aim is to both acknowledge their needs and cement their understanding of the firm’s unique products.
“Education is knowledge,” he says. “We’ve found that some chefs want to use micros but they don’t know how. Chefs need the correct message in deliverance and usage. We help them to understand each product’s provenance and what it’s compatible to pair with. So, instead of just being the garnish, it becomes an ingredient. In doing so the product gains significance and functionality.
“Chefs are always open to new ideas and products but through education they come to understand the provenance, the synergy and the benefits of products like micros. There are over 60 different varieties [that Koppert Cress supplies] and for each product there’s always a story and a unique selling point to talk about.”
One key aspect that Koppert Cress is keen to put across to end users is the theory that “the last cut is always the freshest”. “A lot of chefs go for the cut [micro] varieties but they tend to be quite flippant about their usage,” da Costa Greaves points out, adding that the company distributes living micro plants from its production site in the Netherlands on a year-round basis.
“When chefs harvest micros themselves their approach to usage and the dish changes – they use it more cost effectively and efficiently. They use smaller amounts in their dish, plus they smell the aromas that are given off from the plant when it’s cut [which helps with pairing].”
The Cressperience training programme works very closely with chef forums and within that the catering colleges to target end users including restaurant chefs, development chefs and students. In October, Koppert Cress will invite to its Rotterdam-based development kitchen catering students from Suffolk College and Westminster Kingsway College in the UK. This video illustrates what chefs can expect from a Cressperience day.
It’s a two-pronged programme, according to da Costa Greaves. “We have a big development kitchen – it’s probably one of the top four in the world,” he states. “Chefs come to our tasting garden where they learn about flavour, provenance and delivery. They’re introduced to our products continuously. For instance, a refreshment could feature macaroons with fresh Kaffir Lime leaves that have been dried, liquidised and dusted on top. It’s about the whole deliverance. We have a big database of flavours to use for the educational programme. We’re teasing the palettes of future chefs.”
In all countries where Koppert Cress supplies its living micro range, da Costa Greaves says the message is very similar in its focus on education to support the end user or the wholesaler.
For chef clients, da Costa Greaves prepares regular information about newly-available varieties, including where the seedling has come from, its flavour and usage. For wholesale clients, which include markets in London, northern England, Scotland and Ireland, da Costa Greaves communicates on a weekly basis to deliver an overview of the firm’s availability, what’s featured in the current offer and what chefs are demanding.
Introducing new flavours
In striving for “aromatic architecture”, Koppert Cress is constantly on the lookout for natural, innovative and creative food-safe ingredients that international chefs can use to intensify the flavour, aroma and presentation of their dishes.
“The whole point of our production is to be innovative,” says da Costa Greaves. “But at the same time it has to be functional. We’re pretty much the world leader in micro innovation and we’re very picky in terms of what we release. We go through so many different varieties – it’s constantly changing. We look at the trends globally and we’re always looking at nature too.”
The current range at Koppert Cress is extensive and da Costa Greaves says each micro has a story to tell. View the collection and its flavours here.
The company benefits from the support of an international network of R&D institutions, biologists, plant experts and gourmet/Michelin chefs in its bid to deliver a continuous stream of products that meet the increasingly stringent demands of restaurants worldwide.
With that in mind, da Costa Greaves says none of micros produced by Koppert Cress are modified. “We don’t play with nature,” he says. “We take innovative ideas and find the seedlings to produce ourselves. We do all the research.
“We use data to see what molecules the micros share with other foods to find out what works well for pairing. We’re all food related with chef backgrounds too, so we tend to already know what works and what doesn’t.”
He says a close friend of Koppert Cress CEO and cooking enthusiast Rob Baan is a Michelin chef too. “They go around the world, looking at different uses of herbs, even by native people,” he says. “They once found a plant growing on the roadside in Vietnam which inspired them.”
What are chefs looking for now?
According to the latest ‘Menu Trends’ report from UK foodservice consultancy Horizons, British menus are becoming increasingly eclectic as chefs make greater use of niche ingredients in a bid to keep up with the trends and offer customers something different.
Now micro leaves have entered the mainstream market, the bar is continually being raised to excite consumers with the micro offer. In April, Sainsbury’s added micro herbs and edible blossoms to its Taste the Difference bagged salad range in response to growing demand from shoppers.
For chefs, da Costa Greaves says they all have different needs and look for different solutions. “Every chef wants what their friend hasn’t got,” he laughs. “At the moment, synergy within a dish is a big trend. As is the wow factor.
“The way we present food has also changed with the shifting demographics. Chefs want innovative dishes that will be spread on social media. What’s working is what creates the wow factor and that is their unique selling point.”
At the same time, he says traditional products remain on trend. Watercress, for example, is perceived by UK chefs to be high in nutrients but it can also be considered to be stringy. In response, Koppert Cress released Hippo Tops, which is a red veined and red tipped watercress variety that was named after Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine. Watch this video of its release.
“It’s very constructed and uniform,” da Costa Greaves says. “It’s not stringy like conventional watercress. It’s available now for foodservice.”
In March Koppert Cress also released the BroccoCress, which the firm claims to be the first fresh superfood. “Fresh broccoli is one of the most healthy vegetables and is known for its good features, such as strengthening the immune system,” the company states. “Broccoli is not only rich in vitamins and minerals, but especially in sulforaphane, a substance which activates antioxidants and enzymes in immune cells.
The cress of broccoli, just 30g of BroccoCress contains 50 times more sulforaphane than the complete Broccoli plant, according to Koppert Cress. The taste is very mild and it tastes “wonderfully” on cheese. It is also good for decorating of all kinds of dishes – as a finish for soups and sauces, for example.
More recently, in July, Koppert Cress launched a trio of new cress varieties called Vene Cress, Motti Cress and BlinQCress.
The company describes Vene Cress as a “highly decorative product with an unexpected flavour”. Its small green leaves have delicate red veins and the slightly acidic flavour offers plenty of versatility of use. It’s a particularly appealing ingredient in fatty dishes such as oily fish (like mackerel), sweet bread, or liver, as well as in a green salad.
“A lot of chefs were asking for a red-veined sorrel in a more constructed living plant,” da Costa Greaves says. “We took a lot of points on board and through research we came up with a great solution in Vene Cress.”
Motti Cress, meanwhile, is a tasty and decorative variety of cress. It’s the young seedling of an aromatic herb that has been used in cooking for centuries and can be combined with many other ingredients in a wide range of dishes. The plant is a natural flavour enhancer and can be used in low-salt (low-sodium) dishes. The powerful aroma makes this product suitable for use in both hot and cold dishes, according to the firm.
The third variety is BlinQ Cress which has leaves that feature tiny crystals; giving the plant an “attractive appearance and a good bite”. The flavour ranges from fresh and briny to salty, and it combines well with briny and acidic dishes. The company says it’s suitable for combinations with meat, such as steak tartare, entrecôte, or Wagyu beef, and fish, such as anchovies or mackerel. Watch this tongue-in-cheek launch video here.
“BlinQ is quite salty and briny with a crunch,” da Costa Greaves adds. “People don’t expect much when they see it but they’re wowed when they eat it. Some chefs don’t like using salt so BlinQ uses nature to deliver saltiness to a dish.”
Koppert Cress is currently working on half-a-dozen new varieties that will be launched in due course via social media. “I can’t tell you anymore than we’re pushing the boundaries with nature,” reveals da Costa Greaves. “Watch this space.”
Further videos to watch:
Learn more about the company here
See how a Cressperience chef training day unfolds here
Find micro-leaf recipes on the firm’s YouTube page here
Discover more about the three new cress varieties here