Sam Butler talked to Luca Montorio of PEPPUP in Newtownards about the small company's innovative table sauces.

Luca Montorio has brought his love of delicious sauces from his native Turin to Northern Ireland. He grew up in the Piedmont region of northern Italy that's famed for its peppers and tomatoes used as ingredients in tasty dishes as well as wines-making. Turin is also the home of slow food and Terre Madre.

PEPPUP, the small business he formed in 2013 to create innovative table sauces, recently secured its first sales in Britain for its distinctive product, a deal which has encouraged Luca to step up its marketing and new product development operations. 

Luca Montorio of PEPPUP
Luca Montorio of PEPPUP

PEPPUP table sauces use natural ingredients roasted peppers and tomatoes. Last year he gained endorsement from the influential UK Guild of Fine Food in the shape of a Great Taste Award.

"The business with Booths is a very exciting development for us in a market we've been targeting for some months. It gives us an important foothold in Britain. 

"What sets our table sauces apart is a rich flavour that comes from roasted peppers. I've kept the ingredients to a minimum to ensure the flavour of the peppers is paramount.

"A key objective for me was to create a new table sauce that didn't compromise on taste. The sauces are authentic and versatile. They can be used to add distinctively rich flavours to any dish, or enjoyed on their own.

"Apart from roasted peppers and tomatoes, the only other ingredients are sugar, salt and vinegar. I've also developed a reduced salt sauce to meet the requirements of consumers seeking to limit salt intake," he adds.

The artisan company is supplying its range of three sauces to Booths Supermarkets in the north of England - a classic sauce flavour, a mild version with chilli and a reduced sugar and salt variety. They are on sale in 16 stores including the supermarket's main store in Preston.  The initial sales in Britain follow a direct approach to Booths by Luca.

The supermarket was impressed by the rich flavours of the ketchups and placed a significant order. PEPPUP will be supporting the listing by means a series of in-store tastings. PEPPUP has also secured significant business from leading delis across Northern Ireland. All three sauces are gluten-free.

The products are based on original recipes developed by Luca and influenced by his upbringing in Turin, where his father, Walter, and mother, Sandra, still live. His mother, a graphic artist, weighed it to create the company's identity and distinctively colourful label.

It's a real family enterprise that has engaged wife Liz and their two children, nine-year old Oliver and Dante, aged five. It was Oliver who came up with the PEPPUP, the company's name. "We were batting around names over the kitchen table when Oliver came up with PEPPUP, pepper and ketchup," Luca says.

Luca and Liz, both academic researchers specialising in natural sciences, biology and the marine environment, are widely travelled. They met while studying at Sterling University in Scotland and have since held posts in the Shetland Islands, Denmark and Vietnam. Originally from London, Liz works at Queen's University's marine laboratory. The couple now live at Port ferry.

The original idea to start making ketchup came while Luca was watching an edition of television's popular Apprentice series. "One of the tasks set for the contenders was to develop and market condiments. It gave me an idea to use my experience in Italy to create new and richer flavoured table sauces," he adds.

He turned to Invest Northern Ireland for assistance and gained an Innovation Voucher that enabled him to tap into the expertise at Loughry Campus of the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) in Cookstown.

"The innovation voucher was tremendously important in helping me to formulate the recipes for the sauces. It really made the difference. PEPPUP has a different, peppery taste. It's an alternative to traditional ketchups.

"Developing the sauces took me a year working with CAFRE at its development kitchen. Staff there were tremendously helpful in enabling me to develop the product and the manufacturing process with existing technology. Flavour was crucially important to me, and I didn't want to compromise. We carried out extensive taste testings to establish the production process and the best way to use ingredients. 

"The brand is all about flavour, with roasted peppers the main ingredient. I didn't want to put any water or thickening in it but kept it as concentrated as possible," he says.

Luca continues to work with CAFRE on another innovation voucher and for technical guidance. He's considering additional products in the condiment category using roast peppers.

What do his Italian family and friends think of the new sauces?  "They really love them. I'd aim to be exporting the sauces to Italy with its love for quality artisan foods with provenance that are also big on taste. My focus at the moment is on promoting the brand and creating an awareness of PEPPUP in Northern Ireland and Great Britain as a tasty option. Exporting is a bit further down the line. Booths is the first supermarket chain to list the sauces, and I aim to build on this business. I've also been encouraged by a number of delis here including Sawers in Belfast, Corries in Holywood, McKee's at Newtownards and McCartney's in Moira. I've held samplings and sold out at many of these delis. It's all very encouraging."