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The ice age: unpicking the rise of ‘premium’ frozen food

The ice age: unpicking the rise of ‘premium’ frozen food

by Ollie Lloyd 12 July 2018

With frozen food beginning to shed its unfavourable reputation, businesses are starting to tap into our demand for quality ingredients whilst offering a convenient, easy solution for feeding families in minutes. Ollie Lloyd talks to Jo Davendish, founder of Gourmande, to find out more.

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In 1953, when US food brand Swansons packaged up the American dinner in an aluminium tray, some thought the role of the home chef was under threat. While there’s no doubt that manufacturers like these have influenced our habits in the kitchen, now it is eager chefs and ardent home cooks who are pioneering convenience food today.

As home freezers became more common in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the idea of the TV dinner started to percolate into UK culture. Women were working longer hours away from the house, so the idea that there was this simple solution to ease the stress of getting home was well received, even if the quality of the food, at first, wasn’t.

Now, frozen food elicits a similar reaction ­– most people have some idea of horsemeat lasagne, soggy oven chips and bland samosas. It’s hard to blame them. We’ve lived with pre-prepared meals for so long, and become all too accustomed to the difference between how they’re advertised and what they are in reality (although a quarter of us still buy them at least once a week). The notion that frozen can be fresh and exciting seems like a dichotomy. But consider how sweet and verdant a frozen pea can be, or the natural aromatics frozen herbs retain after spending months in the freezer, and it becomes clear why home cooks are beginning to see the freezer as a friend – not their arch enemy.

Hear more about Gourmande on the FoodTalk podcast

Hear more from Jo Davendish, the founder of Gourmande, on the FoodTalk podcast.

Our lives are increasingly busy, but there is an increasing demand for eating well, even if that involves digging a little deeper into our pockets. We’re crying out for less food wastage too, but perhaps the answer is glaring right at us ­– ignoring the few stray peas at the bottom of the freezer drawer, the whole idea of refrigeration is to preserve what we can’t eat right away. While all this is going on, each of us identifies with food in ways we’ve never done before. We’re vegans, vegetarians, paleo, not paleo, dairy-free, gluten-free, processed-free, clean eaters or coeliac. Catering for every diet and appetite at the family dinner table is more of a challenge than many home cooks would like it to be.

So this should be a great opportunity for retailers who are known to stock frozen food and ready meals, right? Supermarkets have stepped up to the plate in this area and increasingly the frozen food aisles are looking less like morgues. In many ways Iceland has led the charge here and it stocks an impressive range of frozen ingredients, from prawns to lobsters and scallops. However, some of the real innovation is coming from beyond supermarkets, with the likes of Cook, Thyme and Gourmade stepping in.

Gourmade’s founder Jo Davenish realised she was spending a lot of time (and energy) preparing different meals from scratch at different times for her three kids. Playing more of a long game seemed to make more sense. ‘I started making lasagnes in batches of three or four,’ she says. ‘Then started freezing them. Every time we wanted lasagne it was twenty minutes in the oven rather than a run around the kitchen.’

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What started solely as a home kitchen-based activity became a fully fledged pre-prepared food brand last year, selling to Amazon Fresh, Nisa, Spa and farm shops in the South. There are ten dishes such as beef bourguignon, fish pie, chicken and bacon gratin, lamb tagine and Belgian chocolate roulade under Gourmade’s belt, with another ten in the works. All are familiar items to the British home cook’s repertoire, and not much different in their preparation either. ‘There are adjustments to the recipes,’ says Jo. ‘I will start off with how I like it and would have it ideally, then it goes off to large production and you have to tweak various things, but not terribly. They really are cooked from ingredients you’d use at home.’

At this point, it should be remembered how broad the world of frozen food really is, as the quality of ingredients and how they’re prepared should factor in as much as it does with any other food product. Just because something is frozen doesn’t mean you can hide behind cheap ingredients, or flavour-boosting additives. For this reason, Jo works closely with British producers in their own production kitchens to make sure quality isn’t lost with scale.

Gourmade is barely a year young. But it reflects the way things are going. Spending on frozen meals has been on the up in the past few years, even though ready meals are slightly less popular year on year. This suggests people are open to spending more, but for a better standard, and less often. As should have always been the case, there’s a time and place for the pre-prepared meal. Not just something for someone who thinks they can’t cook, won’t cook.

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