Graham Clarkson’s taste buds have helped pick the premium salad leaves in Steve’s Leaves. Now he’s on the hunt for the next big thing.

Telling people you taste leaves for a living can get you some funny looks. Graham Clarkson, chief leaf taster at salad supplier Vitacress, knows this all too well. In fact, he says, even fellow industry professionals are sometimes taken aback.

“I was on a trip to Holland to look at baby leaf spinach, and we were getting the usual sales patter from the breeder, and I just picked up a leaf and ate it,” he recalls. “It was the obvious thing to do. But it turned out they’d never seen anything like it before. No one had ever tasted the spinach in the trial.”

Getting his teeth into new salad varieties at the earliest opportunity is at the heart of what Clarkson does. As Vitacress innovations and seed manager he munches through hundreds of leaves a year in search of the next big thing and his taste buds have helped determine what goes into the Steve’s Leaves premium range of bagged salads, which since launching last April has racked up sales of £1.7m [Nielsen 52 w/e 26 May 2012]

“I probably spent six or seven years going to different trials until I came across wasabi rocket”

Graham Clarkson, innovations and seed manager, Vitacress

Tasting every leaf he can find is not just about a love of salad (Clarkson wrote his PhD dissertation on baby leaves), though there’s a clear commercial edge to Clarkson’s work. The Steve’s Leaves range retails at Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Ocado for about £1.40 for a 60g bag - significantly more than rival brands and own label - so identifying new, unusual leaves that justify a premium is vital.

The wasabi rocket - a particularly spicy leaf that gets its name from its similarity to Japanese horseradish - is a case in point. “We’ve always been big into rocket at Vitacress and we wanted to find a new variety that would be different and special and exclusive to us,” he says. “I probably spent six or seven years going to different trials around the globe until I came across wasabi rocket. It was the leaf that really kick-started the Steve’s Leaves brand.”

So what does Clarkson look for? “What I want is a strong, specific flavour,” he says. “Everything I taste I compare to the existing varieties in our range, in terms of taste, mouth-feel and looks, to see if there’s something better or different to what we already have.”

Strong taste and good looks alone are, however, not enough for a leaf to make the cut. Just as important is “processability” - a leaf’s ability to withstand industrial-scale washing, cooling and packaging. “Processability is absolutely key,” says Clarkson. “If a leaf doesn’t process, it won’t reach the consumer in the right quality and would be a non-starter commercially.”

As for the next big new leaf, Clarkson is tight-lipped, but he reveals his colleagues in brand and recipe development are keen to start including herbs in salad mixes, with garlic chives a particular focus.

Farther on the horizon is Asia - a market that holds numerous untapped opportunities for salad suppliers, Clarkson believes. He recently went on a research trip to Japan and South Korea - meeting farmers and seed companies, and sampling the local cuisine - and says he is excited about the idea of exploring how bok choy and choy sum could translate into the baby leaf format. “There’s a massive variety of products out there, and it’s one of the project streams we’re working on,” he says.

Whether the next big thing in bagged salad will ultimately be herbs, Asian baby leaves or something different altogether, one thing is certain - when it hits supermarket shelves, there’s every chance it will have had to make it through Clarkson’s taste test first.