To a jounalist, the prospect of trip abroad to visit a newly-opened factory sounds jammy! Especially when the factory involved is a supplier of that sweet preserve.

Bakbel Europe opened its new fruit fillings, glazes and jam factory near Brussels on 7 September. Bakbel is a new joint venture between the Bakels Group - which operates 21 manufacturing sites as well as 14 non-manufacturing companies, distributing to more than 120 countries worldwide - and Didier Ladrière, original founder of the Fruibel company in the 1990s, which was later sold to Unifine Food & Bake Ingredients. Ladrière has considerable experience in fruit-based products.

Bakbel’s products will be distributed in the UK by Bakels. "The venture is so new that we are only just starting to get customers in the UK," says British Bakels MD Paul Morrow. "Our biggest so far is Morrisons, which has ordered a considerable amount of our cherry fruit filling."

Bakels Group chairman Armin Ulrich adds that one of the gaps in Bakels’ assortment, until now, has been fruit-based products such as fruit fillings and glazes. Although they fit into the indulgent category, the products’ high fruit content will increasingly appeal to the healthy consumer, he says. The company is seeking to improve the nutritional profile of its existing products by reducing or removing ingredients such as sugar or salt.

Main focus is on quality

"Quality is our main focus; for example, Bakbel blueberry fruit filling is made from wild Canadian blueberries, which are much more expensive than the farmed varieties, but you really can taste the difference," says Ulrich. "This variety is expensive because there is a shortage of fruit pickers in Canada. Recently, the US has also been hit by a shortage of strawberry pickers, hampering supply and pushing up prices."

Due to the wettest summer on record in the UK and drought in other countries such as Australia, Turkey and Greece, most fruit harvests have been very poor this year. Blackcurrant crops in the UK and Poland were down, with Polish crops dropping by almost half. Prices hit record levels and concentrate rose to almost four times last year’s prices. Raspberry and strawberry harvests have also been problematic, with Chinese strawberry exports increasing in price but decreasing in volume.

Despite this, Morrow says Bakels is not worried about the rising cost of fruit and other commodities. "We are just entering the UK market, so we don’t need to put up our prices as such and we have all our stock already secured for the next year," he says. "The globe is experiencing changing weather patterns. We’ve had great harvesting years since 2004, which was also a terrible year. It’s becoming impossible to predict. Who knows? We may get an excellent year again in 2008."

room to increase capacity

The current capacity for the new Bakbel factory is 100 tonnes per week, but this can be increased as there is room for more equipment, says Morrow.

Bakbel’s fruit fillings, called Lafruta, are typically made from 70% fruit and and come in a variety of flavours, including cherry, blueberry, strawberry, apple and pineapple.

The fillings are presented in resealable doy packaging, which ensures a two-year shelf-life. "From our research, no other company uses doy packaging for fruit fillings - it is a British packaging innovation. As well as being fully recyclable, the packaging will also help assert the premium nature of the products," says Morrow.

Bakbel’s range also includes: La Pomme, made from 90% Jonnagold cubed apples; Frutissimo, a bake-stable fruit preparation; Pastryfill, for puff pastry or covering Bavarian tarts; Diamond Conserve bake-stable spreads; Satin chocolate couvertures; Superglans ready-to-use liquid glazes; Sapphire, an assortment of hot process glazes from pastry-chefs; compound flavouring; Diamond Glaze cold glaze applications; and piping gel.

"British Bakels is experiencing exciting times," adds Morrow. "We are also launching an Australian bread mix, made with lemon and spices. The secret ingredient is myrtle, a flowering plant native to the subtropical rainforests of eastern Australia."

At the opening of the Bakbel factory, Jean-Claude Marcourt, minister for the economy, employment and trade in Belgium’s Walloon region, said he was delighted to be attending the event.

"The Belgian government is pleased to support this business," Marcourt told British Baker. "It will create many local jobs and will encourage foreign trade. It’s a great opportunity to boost exports."

Marcourt said there were few employment opportunities in the area. Therefore, Bakbel will receive up to 18% in government subsidies, depending on the quantity and quality of jobs it creates. At present, 80 people work at the factory, but numbers are expected to increase over time.n