Fresh from the carton

the material world : This autumn even Heinz, the company whose success was based on turning fresh foods into preserved ones, is introducing fresh soup for the first time
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Indy Lifestyle Online
You are in need of a snack, and your thoughts turn to soup. It's not an original idea: last year we consumed 845 million helpings of ready-made soup. But the thought of the can... the opener... that tinny taste in the top of your mouth. Ayee! You are suffering from product fatigue. You crave the same substance in a new, exciting format. So you nip out and buy some soup in one of those cheery little milk cartons from the New Covent Garden Soup Company.

Vegetable edibles

Covent Garden - isn't that where they used to sell the vegetables? Isn't it also where trendy types (and tourists) go to eat and shop? The soup must be good. Don't bother looking for oxtail or plain old cream of chicken. What about lettuce and pea? Or pumpkin? Or - one of the first and still the best seller - carrot and coriander? The ingredients seem to be the same as you might use yourself: no preservatives, no modified starch to bulk it out. Perhaps it really will taste like the homemade soup you don't have time to make.

Seven years ago, the New Covent Garden Soup Company invented "fresh" soup. Unlike the tinned kind, which is canned then sterilised, fresh soup is cooked and pasteurised before being packed; it must be stored in the fridge and eaten within a few days of purchase. Tinned soup keeps indefinitely and is much cheaper: Heinz's best-selling tomato costs about 39p for a 420g can, whereas a pint of carrot and coriander costs pounds 1.39.

What do the big boys think?

Fresh soup has dented the tinned soup industry, even though it accounts for just three per cent of all sales in a market worth pounds 381million a year. This autumn even Heinz, the company whose worldwide success was based on turning fresh foods into preserved ones (and which has been selling tinned soup in this country since 1910), is introducing fresh soup for the first time.

So how did it all come about?

The New Covent Garden Soup Company has grown from a few people chopping up carrots in a food research lab borrowed from Reading University to a company employing up to 150 people in two factories, producing 15 million cartons of soup a year. It is a story which will hearten armchair entrepreneurs everywhere.

In 1988, Andrew Palmer, a stockbroker and good amateur soup-maker, met Caroline Jeremy, who had cooked in restaurant kitchens but was then a food selector for Marks & Spencer. The name was chosen because the founders intended to set up their factory in New Covent Garden (Nine Elms, in Vauxhall, south London, home of the displaced fruit and vegetable market) to be handy for supplies of fresh produce. Thwarted by planning restrictions, they went instead to Willesden, in northeast London, but realised that the Willesden Soup Company didn't have the same ring. They also discovered that they could buy cheaper, fresher vegetables direct from farmers.

It all seems very friendly and upfront and, well, fresh. Even the printed design on the carton, with its 57 varieties of type and slightly ungrammatical messages, helps give the impression that if the whole enterprise isn't actually being run from someone's kitchen, then it's the next best thing. But is it any better than tinned soup? Is it worth the money? Does it taste at all "bought"? These things you must decide for yourself