Into the mouths of babes

Mother knows best: Melanie Gill with sons Zach (left) and Jett.
Mother knows best: Melanie Gill with sons Zach (left) and Jett. Photo: Kate Geraghty KLG

No wonder the French have sophisticated palates: they start early. According to nutrition research, French mothers introduce their infants to a wide variety of vegetables within a month of the baby being weaned, whether preparing baby food themselves or buying it ready-made - usually up to six types, as opposed to the Germans, who introduce them to only three, much like Anglo cultures.

More than a century ago, trusted French baby food company Bledina pioneered baby food in glass jars, and soon become Europe's market leader. Today, the company has more than 80 products in its range, catering to infants from the age of three months to 36 months with a selection of steamed pureed vegetables, desserts and fish recipes.

Also on the menu is a junior version of paella and pot au feu, not to mention chicken a la basquaise and tuna provencale. The company website features advice from Michelin-starred chef and mother Helene Darroze (juggling restaurants in Paris, London and Moscow), who suggests introducing children early to fairly adult tastes, such as eggplant, turnip and swede ''seasoned with a little parmesan, a drizzle of oil or a bay leaf''.

It was only a matter of time before the idea of gourmet baby food caught on here. The surprise is that it took a non-parent and fine-dining chef to come up with the concept.

The idea came to Luke Mangan three years ago when he overheard women at a party complaining that they could not buy baby food that was free of preservatives. He approached Heinz, suggesting they collaborate on a range, but says the food manufacturer turned him down. ''So I thought stuff that, I'll do it myself.''

Once he began researching what was available on the market he was horrified by the high amounts of salt and sugar infant foods contained. Teaming up with Heath Molloy, a former chef at SALT, (Mangan's restaurant at the Sydney Hilton) and his wife, Melanie Gill, he worked closely with a food scientist to create a range of dishes, road testing them on the couple's son Zach.

The result is Baby Bites, a small range of ready-to-serve prepared dishes for children aged from 10 months, priced at $3.95 for a 180-gram pot. So far there are three Toddler Pots dishes, including a lamb pot roast, a junior version of paella and a chicken casserole with pearl barley that reminds Mangan, one of seven children, of his mother's home cooking. ''It was always fresh, always seasonal,'' he says. Every dish uses fresh steamed vegetables and contains no artificial ingredients.

''Infants have more taste buds than we do,'' he says, ''so it's really important to train that sense of taste as early as possible.'' A baby's taste buds start developing in the womb, with sensitivity to sweet and bitter tastes being present from birth. Reaction to salty foods develops at the age of five months.

The range required investing in costly technology. ''We've imported a machine from Italy that cost half a million dollars and is the only one of its kind in Australia. It performs several functions, including detecting microscopic bone fragments in meat, as well as packaging the food in sealed containers,'' says Mangan, refusing to divulge his cooking technique, conceding only that it is ''similar to sous vide'' (a technique for cooking foods in vacuum-sealed plastic in water baths at lower than normal temperatures favoured by many high-profile chefs).

Made in small batches for better quality control, the Toddler Pots have a life of 30 days in the fridge. Early sales suggest Mangan has found a gap in the market and he plans to extend the range to a broader age group.

Next up, in May, comes a range of vegetable and fruit purees - zucchini, pear and apple - in specially designed pouches. A convenient option for busy parents who can't always prepare their children's meals from scratch, Baby Bites may prove to be popular with more mature consumers.

''The lamb is so tasty that if you just add a pinch of salt for adult palates, it makes a great hearty soup,'' says Mangan, who hopes his range will develop young palates so that Australian babies grow into discerning eaters - just as they do in France.