The importance of investing in the future of the industry emerged as a key theme at this year’s SAMB (Scottish Association of Master Bakers) Technical Sessions, which were held at the Peebles Hydro Hotel. Guest speaker Pat Smyth, who is president of the Irish Association of Master Bakers and managing director of AB Mauri company Yeast Products, stressed the need to address the industry’s "low skills base", adding that "educational support is becoming an issue". He also identified a problem with retaining people in the industry.

His presentation focused on the main challenges facing the baking industry in Ireland, but many of the themes would have chimed with his largely Scottish audience. Over the last 12 years, he noted, more than 60% of bakery goods manufacturers - from both the plant and craft sectors - had left the industry, many because property values had offered more attractive returns than continuing the business. Furthermore, the growth of in-store bakeries within multiple retailers’ stores had intensified the pressure on traditional producers in terms of pricing, margins and variety of offering.

At the same time, bakers were also being confronted by the challenge of a changing marketplace, according to Smyth. Notably, the rapidly-rising Irish population was becoming ever more ethnically mixed and also more sophisticated in its tastes, owing to wider travel experiences. There was also a growing awareness of the benefits of healthier foods with lower fat and salt content, as well as ever-stronger demand for quality, convenience foods.

Smyth took these factors into account in making a number of predictions about the future of the Irish baking industry. He anticipated that the leading bakery goods manufacturers would operate "both north and south in an all-island market", which was currently worth in excess of €640 million per annum. And he added that further acquisitions and mergers in both the plant and craft segments of the trade would result in "fewer but larger producers". He also expected a continuation of Irish imports of bakery products - particularly from the UK and western Europe - and an increase in regulatory controls imposed on the industry.

Change would also generate opportunities, according to Smyth. For example, he said, there was scope for traditional bakers to create a product weight mix that better suited the evolving marketplace, with perhaps more emphasis on smaller packaging sizes to reflect the trend towards smaller households.

He closed his presentation by posing a number of key questions, including: "Can we ignore the skills shortage in our sector? Can we, as an industry, continue to allow the multiple buyers to hold our margins to ransom? And will higher unit prices allow us to attract a skilled, quality workforce?" He also pondered whether the baking industry was truly listening to its customers, adding: "We all say we are, but are we really?"

Flour changes

The complexities of flour were then revealed in a joint presentation from Hutchison Flour’s Andrew Chisholm and Tim Hall. According to the former, the flour used by bakers had undergone considerable change over the last three decades as a result of the emergence of the Chor-leywood Bread Process and changes to functional additives, several of which had been driven by regulation. And whereas Can-ada had been a major source of wheat in the 1970s, an increasing proportion of wheat was now coming from the UK and from fellow European countries.

Hall, who is mill manager at Hutchison Flour, stressed the key role of technology in flour production, including improved methods of on- and off-line wheat analysis, as well as the introduction of "sophisticated control systems to enable man-less mills". Partly as a result of advances in programming technology, the UK’s 59 flour mills now employ fewer than 2,000 people, it was pointed out.

Trip back in time

In addition to focusing on current and future developments affecting bakers, the latest SAMB Technical Sessions also indulged in some unapologetic nostalgia as Jim Brown, now approaching retirement as purchasing manager at James Fleming & Co, looked back on more than 50 years in the industry. He highlighted the emergence of the Chorleywood Bread Process as one of the most significant developments during his time in the one of the most significant developments during his time in the trade. Another change for the better, he added, was the shift from imperial to metric weights, since this had simplified the process of calculating ingredient costs.

In a typically humorous presentation, Brown produced an old black-and-white photo, showing more than 100 people attending a talk on sponges before casting doubt on whether the same subject matter would attract such a substantial following today.

He also noted that his time as industrial liaison officer at Chor-leywood in the late 1960s and early 1970s had afforded him the opportunity of international travel - "to Dublin".

With guest speeches finished, SAMB’s outgoing president Joe McDonald made a presentation to George Ross, executive chairman of Inverurie-based JG Ross Bakers, in recognition of his six years as chairman of the Tech-nical Sessions in Peebles. Alan Stuart, managing director of Stuarts of Buckhaven, has ag-reed to take on the role for next year’s event.

Bright young things

The Scottish Association of Master Bakers (SAMB) underlined its commitment to the future of the industry with the first-ever award of the James Allan Memorial Trophy at its latest Technical Sessions in Peebles. The recipient was David Dingwall of Forres-based Mac-lean’s Highland Bakery, who celebrated victory in a new competition created specifically to enable young bakers to showcase their skills.

In the contest, held on April 30 at the Scottish Bakery Training Centre in Larbert, competitors were required to make a fermented product from scratch and also to finish another product, such as a sponge cake or a Danish pastry. These were then assessed by a panel of experts, including SAMB past-president John Murray and Andrew Chis-holm, technical manager of event sponsor Hutchison Flour.

Dingwall, who also receives a first prize of £250, beat Ross Cameron of Crieff-based Camp-bell’s Bakery into second place, while Murray Barnett, of G H Barnett & Son of Anstruther, finished third. Cameron and Barnett take home cheques for, respectively, £100 and £50.

The decision to create the competition followed a bequest to the Scottish Bakery Training Council by Hamish Burns Allan. The former owner of the James Allan bakery at Torrance, north of Glasgow, asked for the money to be used to encourage young bakers within the industry. He insisted in Peebles: "The future of the industry is in very good hands, so long as we can produce trainees like David."

Prior to the award of the trophy, which bears the name of Allan’s late father, SAMB’s head of skills training Arthur Rayer congratulated the six finalists on the quality of their work, given that they had been taken out of the "comfort zone" of their own bakeries. The competition provided young bakers with the opportunity to "meet each other, compete, measure their own skills and learn new skills", he said.

No bakery competitions of this type have been held outside the college environment in Scotland for a number of years, but the bequest provides SAMB with an opportunity to hold such contests "for many years to come", according to Rayer.