Interview with Dr Jamie Claxton, the innovative breeder of kalettes
At the end of January this year I was reviewing the analysis of posts on Saucy Dressings and I saw that, at just under 2,000 views for the month, The Low-down on Kalettes, was one of the most popular on the site.
I began to think about how these little wonderous vegetables had first been developed – who had invented them? I contacted Tozer Seeds, the producers, and put my questions to Dr Jamie Claxton who is Director of Plant Breeding there, and who is also the breeder of kalettes. His fascinating job involves developing all kinds of new vegetables and salad leaves, and he collaborates closely with major growers and supermarkets in the UK and abroad.
In the image of him, above, he is holding a Brussels sprout parent line in flower – one of the parents that would be used to create the kalettes.
For more information about kalettes go to the official kalettes site.
This is what Dr Claxton explained to me.
JC: Developing Kalettes was a real team effort within Tozer Seeds. It all started with the ‘brainstorm’ idea of trying to cross pollinate between different members of the vegetable brassica group, many of which cross together quite naturally and easily. The idea was to create something new that appealed to the modern consumer with a great flavour, combined with quick and convenient cooking.
The idea was to create something new that appealed to the modern consumer with a great flavour, combined with quick and convenient cooking.
Crosses between kale and brussels sprout seemed to work really well, so we used the expertise of our breeders to develop stable and uniform kale and brussels sprout parent lines, which could be later crossed together to make a number of different trial hybrid Kalettes. Developing these parent lines required many years of painstaking specialised self-pollination and selection work.
Once we had developed a lot of interesting hybrids, our trials and product development teams showcased many trial varieties of Kalettes as widely as possible, including overseas, to decide which of the hybrids were the best. Our sales and marketing teams then worked very hard to promote and market the product; a real challenge when we are dealing with an entirely new vegetable; we kept being told ‘It looks amazing, but the customers wouldn’t know what to do with it!’
We kept being told ‘It looks amazing, but the customers wouldn’t know what to do with it!’
We also sent samples of our product to professional chefs for their input. Eventually, we had a firm commitment from Marks & Spencer to stock the product, so our skilled seed production team were tasked with ‘upscaling’ production to produce commercial volumes of seed; this in itself can be a very tricky process, beset with many potential problems.
SD: What are the challenges to growing a new vegetable from a scientific point of view?
JC: Anything that is completely new will take commercial growers a while to understand how it performs, including what rate of fertiliser to use and whether it has any particular pest and disease issues. Happily, Kalettes seem to grow very much like Brussels sprouts and are particularly winter hardy without many growing issues.
In the case of Kalettes, in getting rid of the stalk in kale
JC: Because Kalettes arise from a natural cross between Brussels sprout and curly kale, they combine the best characters of both vegetables. We selected only the varieties that combine the best characters of both veg while eliminating the undesirable characters. We have managed to make a very tender oriental-type vegetable which has got rid of the tough stalk that is sometimes found in kale and improved the flavour by removing the bitterness sometimes found in both kale and sprouts. The open rosette habit allows for very quick cooking.
In the case of Kalettes, in developing more flavour
JC: We select all our varieties on flavour profile, which often involves munching lots of raw veg in the field! We only chose varieties that combined the flavour profile of the best flavoured kale and Brussels sprout parent lines that we had developed.
We select all our varieties on flavour profile, which often involves munching lots of raw veg in the field!
SD:What other vegetables/solutions were considered before lighting on Brussels sprouts?
JC: Most of the vegetable brassicas cross pollinate easily. We tried lots of crosses, including crossing things like cauliflower and broccoli with kale and sprouts! Unfortunately, a lot of these crosses produced very strange-looking plants that didn’t really work in terms of yield and quality as the plants were very low growing and low yielding, unlike the tall high-yielding growth habit of Kalettes.
A lot of these crosses produced very strange-looking plants that didn’t really work in terms of yield and quality.
SD: What are the challenges to growing a new vegetable from a marketing point of view? What sort of market research did you carry out and what did it tell you?
JC: Initially we did not carry out any market research, it was a breeding project based on the thoughts and feelings of those involved. In 2007 we began to work closely with M&S who gave us confidence that the product would have a market. M&S had a three year exclusive and shared sales data with us for those three years. We only began to look at customer data (Kantar) around four years ago. We used market research to decide if to change the name of the product from Flower sprout to Kalette.
Marketing is now carried out by John Corbett of Little Big Voice. John has a great deal of experience with both growers and retailers.
SD: What are the challenges to growing a new vegetable from a financial/commercial point of view: what sort of investment is involved, how much time and resources?
JC: There is a particular challenge with Kalettes as we only provide the seed, not the finished product. This means that the key relationship between grower and retailer is separated from us. We have had to develop a marketing fund by using a portion of the money we receive from seed sales and keep in close contact with retailers and growers.
SD: You are selling Kalettes internationally – where have they proved to be most popular, and why?
JC: They are currently very popular in Australia but the largest market so far is the UK. I think the British are keen on vegetables but also very keen to try new foods.
SD: Although first developed some 20 years ago it’s only recently that Kalettes have really taken off – what was the turning point?
JC: In 2013 we entered the Innovation of the Year award at Fruit Logistica and although we didn’t win we received fantastic publicity, this sparked international interest. Other key events were a feature on the One Show and laterally on Countryfile.
SD: Has anything surprised you about the development (both the vegetable itself, and the market for it) of Kalettes?
JC: That you have to keep working hard to maintain success.
SD: What’s next on the stocks? What is the market seeking now?
JC: We are always up for a new challenge at Tozer seeds! We are now developing new and exciting convenient quick-cook kale varieties which are packed with colour, great texture and a mild, sweet flavour. Kale is a very traditional product – we all know it is very healthy so by re-inventing traditional veg we can bring something new to the dinner-plate.
SD: Are there any small, specialist UK suppliers of Kalettes which you would recommend to chefs?
JC: Not really we are closer to the growers than the people selling the products. Staples Brothers in Lincolnshire is the largest grower of Kalettes and have always been very supportive.
SD: What is your favourite variety of Kalettes and why? What is your favourite way of eating Kalettes (I’m assuming you like them!)
JC: Our early variety, Autumn Star, is my current favourite simply because it is the first variety to hit the shops as it crops the earliest. I love eating Kalettes simply stir-fried quickly in sesame oil with a dash of soy sauce.
SD: Is there anything else we should know about Kalettes, or about what Tozer is doing?
Dr Claxton’s favourite method with kalettes
Simply stir fry in sesame oil with a dash of soy sauce.