Think of the most difficult-to-handle dough, batter or mix your bakery has to deal with on a daily basis. Flapjacks may spring to mind but, for many, soda bread tops the list.
Combine cold, fresh Irish buttermilk, with extra coarse wholemeal flour, wheat flour, bread soda, salt and wheatgerm and the result is best described as being like porridge. Scale up to industrial quantities and you need plant and equipment that is up to the job.
One of the main Irish producers of soda bread is McCambridge (Rathcoole, Co Dublin). Established in 1985, the company is a wholly Irish-owned food manufacturer that has history of food production going back to 1945. It started baking in 1994 and also still produces a variety of luxury cakes, puddings and ice cream, in addition to speciality breads.
The recipe for its best-selling Irish Stoneground Wholewheat Brown Bread has been in the family for generations and it gives the product a distinctive nutty texture and taste. The product is yeast-free, low in fat, high in dietary fibre and has no added sugar. British consumers can now buy it over the internet in cases containing eight loaves at £15.60 per case.
In April 2005, McCambridge bought Gills bakery and, following a strategic review of operations, decided to move all soda bread production to the Gills site, seeing great market opportunities for soda bread produced in a modern plant on purpose-built production lines. Managing director Michael McCambridge takes up the story: "We took a long hard look at the market and, with the help of a third party consultant, decided the time was right to invest in its future.
"We had previously worked with European Process Plant (EPP) and purchased a small amount of packaging plant from them. After talking to a number of other suppliers we were very impressed, not only with the equipment EPP could supply and support, but with its overall approach to the project, particularly the partnership attitude employed."
McCambridge decided on an automated VMI double-spiral, three-bowl carousel mixing system. "This not only offered us the capacity but, perhaps more importantly, the mix consistency we were seeking," explains McCambridge. "A very gentle mix is a prerequisite for a quality end product."
The machines have been designed by VMI to be robust as well as efficient, says EPP. Every carousel system is individually specified, including the mixer and tool type, as well as the number of ingredients’ feeding stations, mixers, bowls and bowl elevators. VMI systems can be full integrated with both the upstream - silos, small ingredients systems - and downstream equipment, including dividers and depositors, says the firm.
Soda bread has very different production requirements to yeast plant bread and, for an installation of the size required by McCambridge, it was imperative that every detail was correct. Take, for example, the ovens. When baking soda bread there is no need for a turbulent air flow in the ovens and the product needs to be placed in heat as quickly as possible after mixing for the 10-12-minute bake. Get the baking profile wrong, and the loaf will burst open.
EPP did its homework and liaised closely with engineers at Gouet, designer of the 18m-long Cyclothermic tunnel oven that is the centrepiece of the production line. The oven is easy to use and, importantly, easy to learn. It uses purely radiant heat to achieve the best possible quality. Even heat distribution is critical to achieving consistent product colour, shape and eating quality. The airflow through the heat exchangers, ducting and radiators in the oven is optimised to achieve this.
The oven is divided into six zones and has two separate burners/heat exchangers to enable maximum adjustment of the baking temperature curve as the products travel through the baking chamber.
EPP also supplied the tray conveyors to link everything up and an automatic tray stacker to store trays and to maintain a constant feed of trays through the plant. In consultation with EPP, a needle depanner was specified - perhaps to the surprise of some. The system was chosen in preference to a vacuum depanner, as it is quieter in operation, more energy-efficient and more reliable, with 100% of the product being depanned.
LEAP OF FAITH
Michael McCambridge admits that, in many ways, it required a great leap of faith on his part to put his trust - and money - in EPP and VMI and Gouet. But on the day the new oven was fired up in the Rathcoole Bakery, beyond the expectations of all involved in the project, the very first product put through the oven was 90% right and it was not long before what McCambridge describes as the "sweet spot" was found and full-scale production could begin in earnest.
The order for the equipment was placed in November 2005 and, by the following July, soda bread was continually cooling on the newly installed spiral cooler before being placed in resealable Freshgard packaging, ready for despatch. The new plant has improved production efficiency in terms of the number of people required, as well as reducing energy consumption.
McCambridge Group is also expanding in the UK. It now owns Husseys Bakery in Berkshire, Queen of Hearts cake supplier in Oxford as well as West of England Bakeries based in Plymouth. n