Crazy for kit: Britain's love affair with kitchen gadgets
Ceramic knives, silicone moulds, posh Italian coffee pots – these are the new objects of desire for a nation obsessed with kitchenware. Christopher Hirst gets a handle on the £500m sexy pots-and-pans industry
Saturday 26 February 2011
In retrospect, it might have been a mistake to ask my wife along to Spring Fair International at Birmingham's NEC, which incorporates Britain's biggest trade kitchenware show. She was there to provide expert assessment of the infinite variety of culinary gubbins on display (everything imaginable except electrical) but journalistic objectivity went out of the window at the very first stand we encountered.
"Coo," she sighed. "Aren't they gorgeous? We need some new saucepans." She was swept away by a range of ceramic-lined aluminium pans in brilliant colours (red, green, blue and yellow) on the stand of I Grunwerg of Sheffield.
Sales director Rachel Grunwerg did little to quell the fires of my wife's desire.
"They're very lightweight and, unlike normal non-stick, the ceramic coating won't come off," she said. "When cooking with them, you need very little oil, about half the usual amount. A pan retails for £20, a casserole for about £40."
"It's good to see a Sheffield company still making metalware," I said by way of deflection.
"Sorry, they're made in Korea," said Rachel. "I'm the third generation in a family that used to make pinking shears and cutlery but now we're importers."
Retailing is a form of gambling. The buyers for department stores and kitchenware speciality shops have to punt on which items on the 300 stands, ranging from ironing boards to top-end Italian design, will magically draw the plastic card from the buyer's purse.
Considering the deeply domestic nature of the items on show, the sales pitches were often surprisingly unfathomable. "It's got the look of stainless steel but the functionality of non-stainless steel." "The whoopee pie will take over from the cupcake." "It's a challenge to find a banana that doesn't fit our banana guard."
The reason for the existence of this gadget jamboree is that everyone who cooks is prey to the delusion that a new knife, coated pan or baking mould will miraculously transform their ability. In fact, this is rarely the case as millions of jam-packed drawers and cupboards will testify. But hope springs eternal and so does the endless flow of culinary innovations.
The potency of items that bear the name of a TV chef is particularly strong. At one stand, we saw some fluted blue porcelain ("Quite sweet and girly," noted my advisor), a child's biscuits and brownie set, a "Lemon Squeezy" frying pan and a set of coupé bowls that all carried the imprimatur of the delicate aesthete Jamie Oliver.
Everywhere at the show, you heard this year's buzzwords: "silicone", "ceramic" and "cupcakes". A new product from Lakeland, the UK's biggest specialist kitchen shop, encompasses two of these retail shibboleths. "Piping bags for cake icing are very big," said Matthew Canwell, the company's buying director. "The problem with piping bags is that they are phenomenally difficult to clean. We have super-high hopes for a silicone piping bag at £8.99 that you pop in the dishwasher. Made in China. Anything to do with cake decoration, such as sprinkles and cake toppers, has soared
in the past two years. We're doing well with a cupcake-maker costing £44.99 that we developed with a supplier in Hong Kong. Doilies have become incredibly popular."
Coming from a generation that burnt its doilies, this came as a surprise to me. Was it connected with Britain's apparent desire to return to 1936 with an Old Etonian Prime Minister and The King's Speech?
"It's not old-fashioned but re-appropriation," insisted Canwell. "There's been a revival of people taking an interest in home entertaining that is really rather nice. People want to rediscover lost skills. Jam jar sales go up and up and up." As a retailer, Lakeland was not at the NEC to sell its own products but to find out what's on offer and get new ideas. The company invites approaches from inventors. I spotted one with a wispy grey beard – he might have been an inventor from Central Casting – demonstrating his brainwave to a pair of Lakeland execs. In a couple of years, if you find your life transformed by something that looks like a small castor on a stubby handle, you heard it here first.
Over on the Paton Calvert stand, silicone moulds for petites madeleines are just the ticket for a 21st-century Proust. "No one puts as much silicone into their products as us," a salesman confided. "People think all silicone is similar. It's not. We put in 72 per cent but our nearest rival uses 10 per cent less. We tested another product and found it was only 20 per cent..."
At this point, a colleague approached him. "Excuse me, Alan, but the people from John Lewis are here..."
"Bye," said the salesman, as he instantly de-materialised and headed for the money.
At the stand of the Italian design company Alessi, I was intrigued by an elegant hinged cross in stainless steel. Was it a teabag squeezer?
"It's an item that Alessi feels has been missing from people's houses," said PR person Amelda de Segundo. "A crucifix." That is, crucifix as in Christian symbol, not really a kitchen utensil unless you pray for your bread to rise. Croce by Mario Trimarchi costs £32.
There wasn't much sign of Alessi's famous anthropomorphic gadgets, though its latest addition, a shiny, bulbous Moka stovetop espresso maker (three-cup £26, six-cup £32) may owe something to the Michelin man. My wife was ecstatic at the sight of Alessi's new triple-ply mirror-finish saucepan (£86), while I was taken by knife-sharpening steel for £42. This may seem steep, but imagine the potential for showing off if you sharpen your knives with something that looks like an arum lily.
The Alessi approach to utensils, which cleverly makes them more than merely utilitarian by giving them a distinct identity, was evident on many stands at the show. Kitchen items now aim to delight both for their tactile quality (all that gorgeous silicone) and witty shape.
There were more floramorphic utensils on the stand of Danish design company Eva Solo. Its Tulip (£59) is actually four spatulas in black nylon that "form a harmonic whole" around a whisk. Other objects on the company's stand reflected modern sculpture. The world's most elegant gas barbecue took the form of a stainless steel cone (£1,000), but for gleaming élan at more modest price, you could go for My Tea Bag (£16), a slender stainless steel tea infuser in the shape of... yes, you guessed.
The Orka insulated oven mitt (£14.99) made in the ubiquitous silicone by the French company Mastrad has enjoyed great appeal in our kitchen both for its miraculous insulating properties and entertaining resemblance to a killer whale. This year, the glove has been joined by an Orka ceramic paring knife (£25 for small, £30 for slightly larger). Once it's been pointed out to you, this too has a cetacean quality when part-closed – though it is more a sperm whale than a killer. When open, the knives look like cutthroat razors. The scary display on the Mastrad stand might have been the tonsorial parlour of Sweeney Todd. "Very, very sharp," said Andrew Geddes, a trifle superfluously. "Made in China from zirconium ceramic. It will hardly ever need sharpening." The blade is protected by a cover that folds into the handle when you want to do the dirty on a courgette or garlic clove. "It will stay sharp in the knife drawer even when rubbing up against everything else."
At the Kitchencraft stand, I saw an oyster set (£5.99) that includes an item any shucker would be grateful for. Not the oyster knife, which is only so-so, but the accompanying plastic oyster holder. Shaped a bit like a soap dish, this does a far better job at holding the oyster during shucking than the tea towels usually recommended (and you don't lose the delicious juice). For the perfect oyster knife, millionaires should shell out for the version from the German cutlery company Wustof. This Excalibur for molluscs cost £46.
"You know how big cupcakes are?" a salesman asked a pair of retailers. "Well, this is going to be launched in July." He pointed to a two-tier cake stand (£27.50) from a range called Let Them Eat Cake designed by Laurence Llewelyn Bowen for the Arthur Price company. I remarked that the pattern of gaudy roundels reminded me of Victorian cut-outs, but I was disabused of this notion by the designer himself, who popped up before me like a soigné genie.
"I've taken something very beautiful and something very rock and roll and mashed them together," said Britain's favourite fop. "I love selling rococo bouché on a mass market scale. I like the cheekiness of Let Them Eat Cake. It's about cupcakes but not about cupcakes. Like all my chinaware it's designed for drinking gin. There's something new wave here. It's got more to do with Monty Python than anything else. The designs could be by Terry Gilliam. The teaspoons are casts of teaspoons I found in a junkshop..."
It is possible that LLB would still be extolling his dangerously radical cake set if I hadn't walked away. A down-to-earth restorative was supplied by Ralph Humphries of Pendeford Housewares, a West Midlands company that practises the unusual policy of actually manufacturing utensils itself.
"We've been selling these non-stick blini pans for £7.99 by the thousand. One of our biggest sellers is the preserving pan [£17]. We were going to stop making it but in the past few years it's come back in a big way. We make everything on our pans except the handles, which come from Italy. Italians make everything, except egg cups. I don't think they eat boiled eggs."
He produced physical proof of Italian inventiveness in the form of a new pan from Bialetti that is imported by Pendeford. The function of the five-litre Aeternum pan (£35) is mysteriously described as "multipurpose three-in-one cook/drain/dress" but it mainly seems to be for pasta. "When your pasta has boiled," said Humphries, "you lock the perforated lid in place and it acts as a strainer." My wife almost fainted with desire.
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