Garlic candy, bacon and egg ice-cream, chilli chocolate… consumers are getting more daring, and challenging flavour combinations are gaining ground. Pushing the envelope on exotic flavours can mean big profits for innovative producers. Hugh Westbrook investigates how today’s joke can become tomorrow’s dinner.

Television viewers across the world have been entertained by the improvisational comedians on Whose Line Is It Anyway? for many years. On one famous occasion, the contestants were invited to make suggestions for ‘bad ice cream flavours’. After a brief pause, one walked forward and said: “Do you like the Pork?”

This joke is no longer as far-fetched as once it seemed. Food manufacturers are pushing the boundaries of certain categories and creating combinations of flavours that would have seemed outlandish a few years ago. One particular shift has seen the development of savoury flavours in traditionally sweet products.

There are two elements to this development. The first is that companies creating unusual flavours tend to be at the gourmet end of the market, using high quality ingredients. The second is that they are unashamedly not making products for everyone. In fact, they would be quite disappointed if everybody enjoyed some of their more unusual lines. However, this is a niche that could be set to grow.

British chocolate company Montezuma’s makes high-quality chocolate bars, many with familiar flavours and many with out of the ordinary ones, such as chilli, cinnamon and stem ginger. Co-founder Simon Pattinson explained to that the quality of the product is just as important as the unusual range.

Open to off-the-wall combinations
“We’ve always aimed not only to provide best quality but also to try and innovate and challenge, and come up with new ideas,” he said. “We don’t expect everybody to like it, we have a 50:50 ratio and we think that’s great.

“We try and use spices quite a lot; they have well-known and challenging flavours and are good to use with chocolate. We look around the world at how different countries use chocolate and we don’t exclude any ingredients.” 

“We are looking to expand a very small group of consumers who like fine ingredients rather than just cheap food. There is also a very deep misunderstanding about chocolate and what it can do.”

What do we mean by “normal”?
Pattinson’s comments strike at the heart of what we consider unusual and what we consider normal. Western concepts of diet are quite different to elsewhere. Because chocolate has been sweetened with sugar in the west, it is viewed as a sweet product. In Mexico, cocoa is a basic crop and is used as a matter of course in savoury dishes. As globalisation continues, so a fusion of our eating expectations is taking place.

Jonathan Deutsch, the secretary of the Association for the Study of Food and Society, told that current developments simply hark back to what has been done in the past.

“There’s the idea that chilli chocolate is new but it’s 1,000 years old,” he said. “Good recipe development knows the history. Chocolate was a savoury in the past.”

He also pointed out that milk and eggs are inherently savoury products, but are associated with sweet in today’s society, while in the west we regard beans as savoury but to the Japanese they are sweet

Food historian Rachel Laudan concurs. She told “Chocolate was never a sweet thing at all, it was a savoury cold drink flavoured with quite a range of spices. I don’t think people are really aware of that.”

Chamoy, tamarind test the palate
Dr Laudan has shown in her writing how sugar moved out of main courses in western culture into desserts, thereby breaking the link between sweet and savoury. However, she said that in many other societies, sweet and savoury still co-exist quite happily, with sweet salty snacks popular in places such as China, Hawaii and Mexico, where they are known as chamoy.

Tamarind is one flavour that is making the jump from Mexico to the United States. Dr Laudan said: “I would compare this more to sweet acid combinations such as lemon. It came across from Asia to Mexico.”

The unusual flavour of tamarind may not be a wholesale success in the United States. Many Americans seem to find it unpalatable. The massively entertaining Bad Candy website gives people a chance to mouth off about flavours they dislike. Tamarind gets a particularly hard time. But this demonstrates that manufacturers have to be aware of cultural differences as they look to put products into certain markets.

Roasted garlic Jelly Belly provokes strong response
It will be interesting to see what they make of Jelly Belly’s latest creation, roasted garlic flavour. Your correspondent finds himself quite partial to these, though a random poll elicited almost universal distaste.

Jelly Belly’s vice president of marketing Pete Healy told that no flavour is off-limits for the company, thought not everything can be manufactured.

“Some is determined by food science,” he said. “Sometimes we can’t get true-to-life flavours, sometimes it is more of a manufacturing problem. We have tried mustard but it can be dangerous, it was giving people difficulty breathing. Materials with volatile oils or irritants give us constraints.”

Healy said the company was used to extreme reactions to its products. “The most successful for years was buttered popcorn, but people either love it or hate it, and those who love it buy a lot of it.

“What either puts people off or attracts them is the disjunction of the flavour and the texture. Some people can’t reconcile the flavour with the chewy candy.”

Cosmopolitan Londoners
Research in the UK showed that Buttered Popcorn is the most popular flavour among Londoners, while it does not feature in the overall top ten for the country or in any other regional list. It is hard to know what this shows, but could suggest that Londoners are more likely to experiment when it comes to flavour.

The roasted garlic variety, initially made available because of the opening of a shop in Gilroy, California, ‘the garlic capital of the world’, is likely to elicit a similar response.

“Increasingly there are forces at work that are picking what have been niche flavours and making them more mainstream,” Healy added. “The pace from niche to mainstream has accelerated and with increasing multiculturalism in societies, the market is changing. It is more likely that savoury flavours will stay a smaller part, but there will be growth.”

There is no doubt that we will witness an increase in unusual flavours in sweet products, and many more manufacturers will aim to help this niche market expand. And to prove that the Whose Line Is It Anyway? team really were as far-sighted as we thought, take the example of Michelin-star winning chef Heston Blumenthal, whose UK restaurant The Fat Duck has won accolades for the quality of its menu. One of its signature dishes? Smoked bacon and egg ice cream. Which only goes to show that today’s joke can be tomorrow’s dinner.