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Tortillas Turn the Tables

Many ethnic staples have found their way onto mainstream menus but cross-cultural -adaptation is still rare. One exception is the Mexican tortilla’s use as a competitively -versatile alternative to the bread-based sandwich. Bruce Whitehall talks to flatbread giants Mission Foods.
The flour tortilla has long been a prime ingredient in burritos, enchiladas, tos-tados and other Mexican staples, but it’s also becoming the carrier of choice for ingredients from other world cuisines, whether of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern or European origin.
In all cases, use in wrap-style meals and snacks has helped the tortilla to compete head-on with bread, baguettes and bagels. Its hybridisation stems from bright idea of filling and rolling up these large flat disks of wheat or corn dough into tasty, hand-held, self-contained meals. The trend, originated in the USA in the early 1990s, came about for several reasons:
the soft pliable consistency of the tortilla, which lends itself to being wrapped around many ingredients including relatively wet and ‘bitty’ foods less suited to open-sided sandwiches.
suitability for use without addition of butter/margarine, therefore potential for lower overall calorie count and perception as a healthier, lower fat option.
like all unleavened dough flatbreads, tortillas are generally considered to be a lighter, less ‘bready’ eat and therefore viewed as a healthier sandwich carrier, particularly by women looking for a lighter meal.
suited to both cold and hot presen-tation, using convection or microwave ovens, grills and toasters.
An underlying issue, in the view of Hugues Chausson, head of marketing, Eur-ope, at tortilla manufacturing giant Mission Foods Europe, is the growth of lunch business in the past five years. “While many top-end restaurants have seen lunchtime trade suffer, business through quick-service and casual-dining restaur-ants has remained relatively strong as consumers down-trade, preferring something fast, cheap and easy-to-eat.”
Gruma SA, Mission Foods’ Mexico-based owner, reckons to manufacture 75 mn tortillas daily worldwide, representing a quarter of global demand. The company attributes the wrap’s growing strength in the battle with bread to versatility. “They have become an extraordinarily creative alternative to the humble sandwich, at once customisable, fresh and healthy, quite affordable and highly portable,” Hugues Chausson concludes.
Beating the Baguette
Current menu listings for sandwich breads in the UK, Europe’s largest market for wraps, suggest that baguettes, while second to sliced bread sandwiches with 11 percent share, have static year-on-year demand. Tortilla wraps register 9 percent but exhibit more growth than any other bread type, generating revenue of nearly £80 m and growing at 22.2 percent per annum (Kantar Worldpanel Bakery Wraps-report February 2013).
UK flatbread consumption has been helped by a strong Indian presence and increased flatbread offerings by QSR and sandwich bar chains. Other main European markets have a strong traditional bread or pasta culture which has tended to hinder flatbread growth. However, increased immigration and openness to new cuisines is creating demand, Chausson believes, as well as increased international travel.
Large Maghreb and Middle Eastern communities are an important factor in flatbread consumption in France. Demand for wraps is still relatively in its infancy in Germany except in Turkish neighbourhoods while in Spain tortillas are still most associated with Mexican cuisine, which is currently booming in popular-ity. In Italy, there is an established trad-ition for piadina-style flatbread but use in sandwich options is modest alongside panini and other bread-based products.
Street Food Trend
Across the foodservice spectrum, growth in demand for tortillas on menus looks strong with one-fifth of consumers surveyed by Technomic for the Sandwich Consumer Trend Report 2012 saying that they would like to see restaurants offer more ethnic sandwiches and ingredients. One indicator is the growth in popularity of dishes with a street or market food identity, such as Mexican burritos, Indian roti and Vietnamese bánh mì sandwiches. “More restaurant operators are taking culinary cues from abroad,” Chausson points out.
This is readily apparent when looking at the menus of major QSR chains. Global players like McDonald’s have, Chausson says, had a positive influence in introducing flatbread products to a wider audience, as with McWrap Chicken Pepper Sauce at McDonald’s France and the McWrap Grilled Chicken Honey Mustard at McDonald’s Germany. The chain has also developed novel short-term offers such as Le Petit Oriental in France, made with naan style bread. Customised products which Mission Foods has developed for the chain include low fat, low sodium wraps.
Other big QSR brands that have made an impact with hot wrap products include KFC, most recently with Boxmaster and i-twist, where Mission Foods developed incorporating flavours such as hot chili and maize. Nordsee fish restaur-ants in Germany make a feature of tasty seafood wraps while another notable convert to wraps in both cold and hot forms has been the Pret A Manger sandwich bar chain at its UK and French stores. It has offered them as an alternative to bread-based wedge sandwiches and filled baguette ranges since 1995. Current offerings include a ‘Super-Veg’ Sushi Wrap, Chicken Raita Salad Wrap, Chicken Sesame Sushi Wrap, Chunky Humous Salad Wrap and Hoisin Duck Salad Wrap.

Hot to Go
Pret has also found wraps a useful way of boosting choice in hot foods, with cooked-on-site fillings wrapped in tortillas on grab-and-go hot shelf displays including Chargrilled Vegetable Masala, Falafel & Halloumi, Jalapeño Chicken and Swedish Meatball versions all competing for attention alongside -other hot offers such as pies, pasties and toasties.
According to Chausson, preferences for toasted or grilled wraps are rising, -possibly because hot sandwiches are perceived as a more fulfilling and complete meal than a cold sandwich. “The wait for these hot handhelds can, however, discourage consumers,” he points out. One solution developed by Mission is barmarked wraps with the illusion of chargrilling giving a visual point of difference. They take 25 percent less time to grill than a typical panini sandwich and also offer attractions for vegetarian dishes (no cross-contamination from meat, as occurs with grilling).