AAHHHHH, NOT; BISTO

For years it was a packet of browning, an Oxo cube, or a laboriously home-made stock. Then someone had the bright idea of putting gravy in cartons. Michael Bateman reports
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The Independent Culture
CAROLINE Jeremy knows a thing or two about gravy. At home in South Africa, she recalls, it was the essential accompaniment to the Sunday joints which reminded her English mother of home. Then, when she worked a stage (unpaid work experience) at Paris's oldest restaurant, La Tour d'Argent, gravy played a part again. There the speciality is pressed duck, and she worked alongside a man who had been plucking these birds for 60 years; the gravy, if that's the right word for it, was the warmed blood of the duck with foie gras beaten into it.

Another unforgettable gravy was the one she made while working as a cook for a sculptor in Majorca. The Filipino butler took a dislike to her gravy, refused to serve it with the joint, and threw it away.

Mrs Jeremy went on to become a founding director of the New Covent Garden Soup Company (NCGSC) - which, only seven years ago, pioneered the concept of fresh soups with a home-made taste, sold in cartons. Stored in chill cabinets, they have a 212-week shelf-life. So successful was the idea that it has been widely imitated. The market is now worth pounds 25m a year, with NCGSC (of which Caroline is still a director) hanging on to a 51 per cent share.

The idea of fresh soup was obvious, really. It was the technology that didn't come easily. But having cracked that problem, the innovative thinkers at NCGSC have been asking themselves "What next?" Well, gravy. It was obvious, really.

Gravy runs deep, does it not? The Bisto Kids and the Oxo Family are part of our national heritage, so fundamental is gravy to the national character. France has many hundreds of sauces. We have just one, gravy (and mint sauce, if that is a sauce).

The thickened meat stock we call gravy is a robustly English tradition, deriving from the delicious juices dripping from basted spit-roasts in Tudor times. Before there were plates, each diner took a trencher of hard bread which became a "sop" for food and its juices - hence the word soup. So soup and gravy are siblings.

In time, though, joints got smaller and gravy thinner. We know from Mrs Beeton that, in Victorian times, a copper kettle was kept on the hot- plate, containing an all-purpose gravy. It was made from specially prepared stocks, and coloured deep brown with anything from onion skins to burnt sugar, or even coffee.

Unfortunately, Caroline Jeremy explains, the late 20th-century roast is a sad little thing, yielding little in the way of cooking juices. Never has there been such a need for a real boost. What are the options? You can stir in a bit of seasoning, gravy browning and thickening - the principle of Bisto (potato flour, salt, caramel colouring, herb flavours). Or you can beef it up with a hefty, savoury kick from a blend of hydrolysed meat or vegetable proteins and salt - the principle behind Oxo, Bovril, Marmite.

As a third option, you can go the haute cuisine way and enrich your meat sauce/gravy with home-made stock. "I used to do that," says Mrs Jeremy. "I'd trek back from the butcher with a load of veal bones, roast them in the oven for an hour with chopped onions, carrots and celery, cover them with water and cook for three or four hours, skimming off the fat every 20 minutes. Then it had to be strained, and simmered down to the consistency of thick glue. I'd put the stock in ice-cube trays and freeze it, ready to add to the gravy."

Not a lot of people have the time or inclination to do that any more - but they'd still like a nice gravy to stir into the roast chicken or roast beef juices. Could Mrs Jeremy oblige? With the technology in place for soups, this was no great problem for NCGSC. They initially produced two - beef and chicken - and Asda and Sainsbury's have reported a good response. Caroline's company will be producing a vegetable gravy soon.

Those food journalists who have tried the chicken gravy have given it an emphatic thumbs-up, but a rather more hesitant one to the beef version. This was borne out by my impromptu tastings at home. The beef gravy, containing wine, has a rather assertive, bloody-minded flavour. The chicken is tasty but more neutral, and you can bend it this way and that very comfortably. My children don't like the beef, but they love the chicken.

I went to see Mrs Jeremy at NCGSC's London factory. There is another one - newer and more state-of-the art - in Peterborough; the one I visited is more state-of-the-ark. It attracted criticism in the London Evening Standard on account of its location. Far from being in New Covent Garden, it is in a Willesden factoryscape of Orwellian grimness.

Inside, too, it is Stygian in its gloom. It's hellish with the noise of the blending machines; it's wetter than the deck of a fishing boat awash in a sou'wester. But I've visited a lot of factories and stood in deeper pools of water at the end of noisier bottling lines. What matters is that the produce and processing, the hygiene and the handling, are impeccable. I'm sorry it's not as lovely as the image of its user-friendly soups, but that's how factories are - especially small ones.

Upstairs in the offices, all is sweetness and light - inspired, perhaps, by Mrs Jeremy's mood of enthusiasm and optimism. NCGSC is a novel company, she says, initiated by a man who loved food to the point of obsession. That man was Andrew Palmer, a former stockbroker, whose mother used to make home-made soups for him. "He couldn't see why there were none on the market," says Caroline Jeremy. "Technologists warned him: 'Be careful, it's not an easy thing to do'. They didn't have the technology, you see, to make anything so simple."

It took Mr Palmer 212 years to get his home-made soups on the market, by which time Mrs Jeremy had joined him. She brought her own expertise: that is to say, cooking meringues at home as a child; a course at La Varenne cookery school outside Paris; the stage at La Tour d'Argent; a spell as "a kitchen slave" in an upmarket Brittany hotel; then her year cooking for multinationals visiting the brilliant but eccentric sculptor in Majorca (one visitor was Salvador Dali's wife); and finally her job as a Marks & Spencer food selector in London. "A brilliant training," she says. "I'm very grateful to them."

Mrs Jeremy developed all the recipes at home, there being no test kitchens on the industrial premises. She scaled up to larger and larger batches in the factory - not as easy as it sounds. Italian pressure cookers were installed; technology was perfected to pass the soup into blenders, and back again. The various processes were converted into computer code, so manufacture could be controlled from a single master panel.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the daunting technology, there wasn't a hitch on launch day. The wonderful soups tasted just like mother used to make. But surely mother never made soups like these: carrot and coriander, spinach and nutmeg, vichysoisse, Tuscan bean, mushroom, parsley and garlic, broccoli and stilton.

These are seasonal soups, says Mrs Jeremy, which stumped the supermarkets at first. "They like to plan three months ahead. We introduced a kohlrabi soup this year, and found a farmer who had never grown it. With such a hot summer, he didn't think he was going to get a crop at all."

Caroline is delighted that her company has a healthy and ideologically sound image (no additives, no preservatives, low salt) but is prepared to compromise to be commercial. "It would be nice to produce only fresh tomato soups in summer, but people want tomato soup all the year. So we buy 30-gallon cans of Italian processed tomatoes to make a winter soup, too."

Do they compromise with the gravy? "Not unless you count buying in the stock," she says. "We can't make stock on a large scale here. We are very selective, and tried a lot before we settled on the ones we use." They are sourced from outside the UK. I wonder why.

There have been various attempts to sell fresh stock in supermarkets, but they have foundered. The marketing people clearly never thought of calling it, well, gravy. Here are two recipes in which you can use New Covent Garden Soup Company gravy as stock, or alternatively your own home- made stock.

FRENCH ONION SOUP

Serves 6

40g/112oz butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

700g/112lb Spanish onions, sliced and separated into rings

1 teaspoon sugar

3 cartons beef gravy or 1 litre beef stock

60ml/2fl oz white wine

300ml/10fl oz water

freshly ground black pepper

For the croutons:

6 large slices French bread

2 teaspoons French mustard

2OOg/7oz Gruyere cheese, grated

Heat the butter and oil in a large heavy-based saucepan. Put in the onion rings, sprinkle on the sugar and cook over a medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring every now and then until the onions are golden brown. Then reduce the heat and cook the onions slowly for about 30 minutes until they are caramelised.

Add the gravy (or stock), the wine and the water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 45 minutes. Season to taste. A splash of brandy can be added.

Toast the slices of French bread and leave the grill on its highest setting for the final grilling before serving. Spread the toast with the mustard and pile on the Gruyere cheese, making sure you press it down firmly.

Pre-heat the grill to its highest setting. Arrange six earthenware soup bowls on the grill pan and place a slice of the toast in each one.

Ladle the hot soup over the croutons and, when the slices of bread have risen to the top, slide the pan under the grill until the cheese has turned a golden brown. Serve immediately.

CHICKEN WITH TARRAGON SAUCE

Serves 6

6 chicken breasts

75g/212oz butter

30g/1oz flour

400ml/13fl oz chicken gravy or good chicken stock

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 level teaspoons French wholegrain mustard

60g/2oz cheddar cheese, grated

1 level teaspoon fresh tarragon, chopped

salt and freshly ground black pepper

150ml/5fl oz fresh single cream

In a covered pan, slowly cook the chicken breasts in 40g/112oz of butter for about 20 minutes, or until tender, turning them once.

Meanwhile, melt the remaining butter in a pan. Stir in the flour and gradually stir in the gravy (or stock) and vinegar and simmer for three minutes. Stir in the mustard and cheese; heat gently, stirring until the cheese has melted. Add the fresh tarragon.

Season to taste. Remove from the heat and add the fresh cream.

Heat gently without boiling. Place the drained chicken breasts on a serving dish and spoon over the sauce. !

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