Are you a fan of frozen food?
I readily admit that apart from the obligatory bag of frozen peas (oh and a very occasional Arctic roll!), I don't buy frozen food. I'll freeze leftover Bolognese sauce and rinsed-out ice cream tubs filled with chicken stock - and that's about it. But clearly a lot of people think otherwise as it’s an industry worth around £7.5 billion a year that accounts for 8% of all the food we buy in the UK, which is why we decided to look at frozen food for this week's edition of The Food Programme.
In these straitened economic times, frozen food is a sector that’s growing as consumers recognise two things. Firstly, it offers value for money. And secondly, it helps reduce waste (there’s nothing to trim off and throw away and you only take out of the freezer the amount you need). And it seems to be growing at both ends. As the recession kicked in the frozen food chain Iceland reported double-digit sales growth, while the supermarket seeing the greatest growth in the freezer aisles today is Waitrose.
Frozen food does desperately need to move upmarket if it’s going to muscle in on the lucrative chilled sector goods that most of us seemingly prefer to buy, and which deliver far better returns for the retailers.
To me, it’s true that the range of chilled dishes seem infinitely more appealing than what’s on offer down the frozen food aisle. Apart from ice creams and sorbets, freezers seem to be filled with a vast array of retro foods such as vol-au-vents, gateaux and sausage rolls – all firmly rooted in the diet of 40 years ago. The progress that’s been made elsewhere in terms of food provenance (whether something is organic, free-range, fair-trade or local) hasn’t translated onto frozen food packaging. Frozen food manufacturers, or perhaps buyers, seem stuck in a time-warp.
Of course, it wasn’t always like that. Back in 1917, the scientist and explorer Clarence Birdseye observed the Inuit of Labrador freezing fresh fish in seconds as it hit the sub-zero temperatures out of the ice-holes. He famously went on to develop the technique of blast freezing, done so quickly so as not to destroy the cell structure of food. In the years after World War Two, we were in the thrall of this white-hot, but oh-so-cold miracle technology that allowed us to eat frozen items at the peak of their freshness at any time of year. Incidentally the house I grew up in had, like I suspect many others, a huge freezer cabinet at the back of the garage.
While other countries see no stigma in buying frozen foods (the French buy far more than we do), here in the UK, frozen has lost its lustre and become boring. What would you like to be able to buy in the frozen food aisles? How do you think that section of the supermarket should be re-invigorated to make it make more exciting and relevant? And, more importantly, how do we persuade people that frozen ingredients are just as wholesome as fresh? After all, just look at that bag of frozen peas in your freezer, frozen within hours of being picked…
Simon Parkes is a presenter of The Food Programme