The Scottish Association of Master Bakers (SAMB) 40 Group, which is run by bakers under the age of 40, has always liked to do things differently. So when the idea of a bakery study tour to Vancouver was first mooted 18 months ago, I was keen to make sure this would go down in history as the most ambitious study tour to date, and the best.
The reason for choosing Vancouver was two-fold. Firstly, I am married to a Vancouver lass, Ailsa. This was my fifth visit to the city and I have never failed to be impressed with the high standard of food, drink and service on offer. As for the surroundings, they take my breath away every time. Another member of our committee, Andrew Chisholm, also has family in Vancouver. After we had both visited the city last spring, we suggested the possibility of organising a 40 Group study trip there.
And so, on Saturday, October 22, after an 18-month gestation period, the 40 Group’s latest foreign sojourn began. Forty intrepid bakers, of all ages, gathered in the bar at Glasgow airport for some Dutch courage and bacon rolls.
Red carpet treatment
Two hardy souls had already flown ahead from London to clean the red carpet for the invasion of the Scottish (and Irish) clans. The usual suspects on tour were joined by some young and not-so-young 40 Group first-timers. Bakers were joined by their wives and partners and also by some of the generous suppliers who were kindly helping to sponsor the trip.
The committee had worked extremely hard to put together a full and informative itinerary for the ensuing week. There was also an alternative programme for the non-bakers. On the Sunday morning after arrival, the sight of 42 people meandering through the streets of downtown Vancouver was a sight to behold. The first stop was Urban Fare, a high-end supermarket with the emphasis very much on ‘high’ – as in prices. On display was a Poilâne bread plaque for C$99.95 (£49). Add on the wretched tax at the point of sale and it was yours for almost C$107 (£52.45). I don’t think they were selling dozens per day, but weekly sales at the bakery counter were averaging C$33,000 (£16,175), which represented a mere 7% of overall store turnover.
After scooting across the water on the aqua bus, the next stop was Granville Island Public Market. This is like a permanent farmers’ market, with an indoor location to protect it from the elements. In addition to numerous bakeries there were fresh produce stalls, meat, fish, poultry, delicatessens, coffee shops and possibly the most expensive Scotch pies on the planet, at C$2.95 (£1.45). Not even Ben Milne from Fisher & Donaldson could match that!
During the week, we visited 15 different bakeries and food retailers, and we had a tour of the facilities at Vancouver Community College. We saw many different concepts of production. For instance, at the Bread ’n’ Buns Factory, all the dough pieces are blast-
frozen and sent out to its retail units, where they are proved and baked in front of the customer.
Cobs Bread has a completely different philosophy. It has a bakery attached to each retail outlet, where all products are baked from scratch as close to the time of consumption as possible. Cobs is actually the Canadian part of the 650-strong Australian retail chain Bakers Delight, and has expanded rapidly in a short space of time. It now has 16 locations in the Greater Vancouver area and opened its first store in Toronto in November.
We also saw the production of Danish pastries and croissants on a large scale and a gâteaux production line, doing birthday cakes for a supermarket chain. After visiting the Chinese supermarket group T&T, I now know where to purchase chicken feet and pork intestines, should I ever feel the need. It also had some wonderfully coloured patisserie and cakes.
Throughout the week, the one thing that impressed me most was the quality of the bread on offer. There has been a real explosion in the production of artisan breads in North America over the past 10 years. Many bakeries were started by professional people, such as accountants and lawyers, because they couldn’t source the type of product they wanted to eat. As a result, thousands of people are now able to enjoy the goods these bakeries make.
The emphasis is on flavour and the best way to achieve that is through a longer fermentation time. The extra time taken to produce these delicious sourdough breads is reflected in the selling price. Between C$4 and C$5 (£1.96-£2.45) is the norm for a retailer. If there is any other unique selling point, such as the product being wheat-free (sprouted grain bread is very popular at the moment), then it can command over C$6 (£2.95) and even as much as C$8 (£3.90) for a loaf.
Flavour combinations such as sour cherry and chocolate, fig and anise, and pecan and raisin have also helped to achieve a higher price.
Another main reason for making a study trip (not a holiday) to North America was to see what new trends were emerging there and which might make their way to the UK. Low-carb products have all but died a death. Hallelujah! The next trend could be flaxseeds. The bakery we saw, Red Square, was producing a range of cookies, breads and snacks, using a high proportion of milled flaxseeds and soya protein. Many of the products were endorsed by sports stars and were low in fat but high in fibre and omega 3.
This was one of the most bizarre places I have ever visited. It must be the only bakery in the world with a gym, a table tennis table, a plasma screen TV, a punch bag and a basketball court on the premises. The thinking behind this is that if you treat your staff well, they will be happy – and happy staff are productive.
There were several events that stood out as highlights of the week. The first was lunch at the top of Grouse Mountain, kindly sponsored by Puratos.
Another was the International Baking Seminar at the Vancouver Community College. This was organised by the Baking Association of Canada. The four speakers were: Braeden Lord from Cobs Bread; Melissa Timewell of Thrifty Foods, an independent supermarket chain; Marc Tilkin from La Baguette, an artisan bakery from Vancouver; and me!
I was pleased to hear that we have a lot of common ground. The lack of skilled staff is a problem across the globe and nobody has a cure for it. It was also interesting to hear that Cobs has looked at expanding into the UK. It has decided against it, at least for now, because, according to the company, Britons do not value bread and baked goods highly enough, so it would be unable to achieve a high enough sales price.
Other common ground was established, such as the pressure to make our products healthier by reducing fat and sugar, and also clearer labelling to enable the consumer to make a more informed choice.
There then followed a question and answer session, during which it was explained to our Canadian hosts that supermarkets had decimated the traditional British high street but that there are still independent bakers left. They are the survivors and are now beginning to flourish.
HACCP is an everyday part of running a food business and, in many ways, it has helped to raise standards across the board. The Baking Association of Canada is now hoping to make a reciprocal visit to Scotland sometime in the future.
The final day featured a tour of Burrard Inlet on a boat. The excursion was organised by the Canadian Wheat Board to see the five grain silos it has located along the waterfront to distribute grain to South America, China, Japan and Indonesia.
A tanker containing 35,000 tonnes of grain was pointed out and Andrew Chisholm from miller Robert Hutchison noted that it was carrying a quarter of what it would use in a year.
The scale of production was immense, as was the scale of hospitality shown by the Canadian Wheat Board. Those who abused this hospitality (you know who you are!) were duly fined later in our own kangaroo court. This was another highlight of the week for me, probably because I was the fines master.
To round things off in style, we had organised a ceilidh at the Vancouver Golf Club. This was a curious event for our Canadian guests, but most of them either joined in the singing and dancing with great enthusiasm or were entertained by those who were not sure what they were supposed to be doing.
Ralf Tschenscher from Le Saffre Yeast Corporation in Canada was instrumental in making our trip happen. I cannot emphasise enough how much he did for us during our week there and also for the pilot trip in February.
The following companies were also extremely generous in their support to our cause: ADM Milling, Bako, BakeMark, BFP, British Bakels, Dawn Foods, EPP, Fleming Howden, Macphie of Glenbervie, Puratos and Robert Hutchison.
A big thank you also goes to the 40 Group committee, which contributed to the organisation of the whole week, and also to those who decided to come along and have some fun with like-minded people. That is what the SAMB 40 Group is all about and long may it continue.