Country Cooked Meats specialises in a range of products including sous-vide fully cooked added value proteins. One such solution is its Italian-style meatballs in Napoli sauce, which was a finalist in the Meat, Poultry and Smallgoods category at the 2019 Food & Beverage Industry Awards.
National sales and marketing manager, Nat Perri, said that the company deliberately targeted this particular meal format because it saw a gap in the market for an Italian dish that uses Australian products and is ready to be used by simply heating.
“As part of our prepared meal format, we look at opportunities that we can develop proteins, or a restaurant meal, that people can eat at home,” he said. “The Italian meatballs was a more obvious one. Most similar products in the marketplace are a raw product that you have to finish off. This is a 100 per cent beef product. If you were doing a traditional meatball, you’d probably use pork in the product, too. However, because we wanted it to be sold across the whole spectrum of consumers, we stuck to beef. The sauce is also made in Australia by a local manufacturer.”
When it was originally developed, it was sold into Costco in 1kg packs. Currently, it is being sold at IGAs and Foodworks supermarkets in 400g version. How did the company ensure its authenticness and taste?
The company develops a lot of its products with help from chefs, according to Perri, especially when it comes to ethnic-based products. They try and get the flavour profile as close to being as authentic as they can. It helps that a lot of in-house staff at Country Cooked Meats are from an ethnic background, said Perri.
“Especially when it came to the meatballs,” he said. “There is a number of Italians in the company – including myself and the director who owns the business. The good thing with our New Product Development (NPD) team is that we have a mixture of people and personalities so when we come out with a product, we do separate assessments internally.
“When it came to the first test, we found that we were as authentic as we could get. Then we took the product to retailers and chefs – and they did their own sensory tasting of the product. The only feedback they gave us was that if we were making a traditional Napoli sauce you might get away with a few more herbs like basil or similar if you were an Italian.’
However, the general response was that while those of Italian background might love the original take on the recipe, it was suggested via feedback that the ingredients be slightly tweaked in order to appeal to the masses.
“We had the same issue with our Japanese-style teriyaki chicken,” said Perri. “We made a traditional version of the chicken. We worked with a Japanese company and made two versions of the teriyaki and took it to them. They gave us the thumbs up on the traditional one, but they felt that the Japanese restaurants they deal with tend to make their own and each have a different spin on the dish. They suggested that we replace the soy sauce from a bitter Japanese style to a sweet version. That way it would appeal to the mass audience, which we did.”
The main idea behind the range is to have a fully-cooked protein ready to eat after being heated, while the rest of the meal is prepared by the consumer. The manufacturing process is quite ornate because the company considers it a premium eating experience.
The meatballs are manufactured on site using a nozzle filler that shoots out little balls. The staff gently roll the meatballs with palm of their hand to get make sure they are round.
They are then layer stacked and placed in a freezer to keep them firm and ready for next stage. The meatballs, along with the Napoli sauce, are placed in a tumbler and both are tumbled for a period of time to ensure the flavour of the sauce covers the meatballs.
The combined mixture is packaged in vacuum bags, which are then placed in ovens and cooked sous-vide style for a slow cook of up to three hours. As well as tenderising the meat, this method of cooking ensures the flavour of the Napoli sauce infuses with the protein.
Then there is the packaging, which Perri said has not only been designed to make the finished product the highlight, but also to make sure the consumer could clearly see what they are buying.
“The heating instructions are simple and basic so as to give the consumer confidence that they can prepare the product ready to be served,” said Perri. “The packaging is of a steady E-flute format so as to allow those that stock the product the ability to multi stack in a dairy case cabinet.”
Perri also wants to make it clear that it is a ready to eat type meal and it is not the complete package, but itis the hero.
“We call our products Centre of Plate,” he said. “The customer heats it up and makes their own meal around it, whether that be a salad, vegetables or whatever they want to create, they become the chef.”
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The final aspects that Perri said makes this product a stand out are its longevity on the shelf and that the meatballs – or any of the company’s other products for that matter – have no antibiotics or preservatives.
“When chilled, the shelf life of the product is about eight weeks,” he said. “The reason it retains its shelf life and tenderness is because it is slow and low cooked for a long time – it is cooked in the bag so it keeps its tenderness. It is pasteurised. When you try the product the taste profile is very tender because it retains all its juices. It’s not processed; it’s not pumped with anything – if we say it’s meatball it’s meatballs, if it’s chicken, its chicken.”
Based on the successful roll out of the meatballs product and its other proteins, Country Cooked Meats plans on creating many more dishes that will fall into the same category using a range of different proteins for that restaurant at home experience.