Production of a new generation of plant based meat substitutes that look, feel and taste just like meat has been a long time coming, but now one Dutch firm believes it has the right formula.
While mock meat may not be a new concept, the development of products that genuinely look and taste like their meat-laden counterparts remains a big challenge - with many attempts simply failing to capture the right balance of textures, flavours and juiciness that make a meat-based product what it is.
But all that may soon change, thanks to Dutch firm The Vegetarian Butcher. In the last two years, the firm has grown from a single small 'concept' store in the Hague to fast-growing brand with more than 1,000 dealers and distributors across the Netherlands. Why? Because the firm has managed to create plant-based products that really do taste like meat.
"The Vegetarian Butcher distinguishes itself with a whole new generation of meat- and fish substitutes which chefs and culinary journalists find similar to the real thing," explained the Dutch firm. "Ferran Adrià (El Bulli) and his team of chefs were convinced they were eating chicken thigh of excellent quality and Mark Bittman, food critic of The New York Times, praised our plant-based meat."
Speaking to FoodNavigator about the journey, and what the future may have in store, Paul Bom innovation and product manager for Vegetarian Butcher said that the success of its products is down to the fact that they were created by a team of experts and chefs with a sole focus to create something that replicated 'and maybe even bettered' meat.
Bom, who is a chef and caterer by trade, told us that there is no special secret to the development of his mock meat products - adding that one of the key things was to not be restricted by worrying too much about further details in up-scaling or commercialisation at the start.
"We were more busy like a chef, and not like a food scientist," he said. "We had no borders."
"We had luck to find people that can make very good meaty structures and fibres. And then we found a specialist in yeast who can work on the aromas and the yeast. Then we put spices in, and a little of the umami, and that's it," Bom added.
"I don't know that other companies can't do this too. But they didn't." he replied when asked what makes The Vegetarian Butcher different from other manufacturers producing mock meats.
According to Bom, the major challenge for the Dutch firm has been translating the products designed by chefs and texture experts in to a product that can be produced in high volume.
"For me the most difficult part was to take this to a large scale production," he said. "We took that to the production centre and they asked me 'How can we make this!"
"For me it is unbelievable as a chef," he commented. "If I make a pan of soup, say 10 litres, and its good soup. If I then give that recipe to somebody with a big tank, and they make 2,000 litres - it's different. Why? It drives me crazy."
Indeed, Bom and his colleagues have been working on up scaling the production of a whole range of products - from chicken, tuna, hamburgers and mince - for over a year.
"A year ago I had the hamburger the way it is now, the big problem was getting to a point where we can make 20,000 hamburgers and they all still be the same as my original recipe," he said. "The machine squeezed out all of the fluid, the water, that was in it. And that left me with a dry product."
"When I got it, I said, 'This is not my product'," he told us. "I had to start over again."
"For me, the water provides the same as the fat in a real burger, because between the fibres you have the moisture that makes it drip and keeps it moist. That's what makes the difference, the fluid is between the fibres, not in them - that's the difference."
As a result, the commercialisation process was at times down to pure trial and error, said the Dutch research chef.
Wider distribution and growth
Bom revealed that a number of manufacturers have already shown a great deal of interest in the Vegetarian Butcher products, adding that the firm are working with distributors and manufacturers to both increase the distribution of existing products and to create new ones.
"I don't know if I can give you the names, but of course we have a good image, a good name, good products. They have the big market, so why not."
"As we speak, I'm working on a smoked sausage with one of those names. It's quite a challenge to find the right skin for the sausage, we want to use a seaweed skin, which they have the machine to produce. So they have the skin and I have the insides."
He added that the firm is currently looking to use its own brand 'The Vegetarian Butcher' and grow market presence within the Netherlands - where the brand already has good traction - and within Europe through contact with retailers and partnerships with manufacturers.
"We are a little rebel within Holland, and people like that."
In addition to breaking in to new markets with its own brand, the firm also sees long term potential for private label manufacturing in the future - however Bom reiterated that the current focus is to become its own brand first.
"It will eventually happen," he said. "One area with potential for exploration sooner may be the use of the ingredients in ready meals and other finished products."
"I also have the idea that we could sell, like the dough for the burgers, in packages of say 500 grams or even 10 kilos - without the spices - and this would be purely for the restaurant businesses or other big companies and manufacturers."
"So we could sell maybe a dough to a sausage roll maker, and then they can put their own spices in. Maybe I can help with guidance but it is their product, we supply the raw material, they make the sausage roll with it using their flavours."
A similar principle could be used for the mince product the firm has, he added.
"We have raw mince too, we sell it to a pizza company already but it could be used in all sorts of prepared meals that use ground beef. Lasagne or a bolognaise, for example."
"We are still waiting for the labelling on all of this though, because we need to find a way that it would still have our name on it somewhere," he said.