Breaking into the Arabic flatbread market

RESEARCH AIMED AT BOOSTING EXPORTS TO THE MID-EAST

MOST OF US are familiar with pita bread and other mid-Eastern breads, which have long been available in Canadian mainstream grocery stores and urban bakeries. These ‘Arabic flatbreads,’ as they are generically known, originated in the region that includes the area surrounded by Lebanon, Iran, North Africa and the Gulf States.

Arabic flatbreads are still the predominate breads consumed in these markets – and in other nearby markets with populations of mixed ethnicity, they can represent 30 percent or more of the breads regularly purchased.

Historically and today, Canadian wheat exported into these markets is blended with wheat from other countries – often from Australia – to produce flours of different qualities. These, in turn, are used to make breads that vary from region to region. However, over the years in most of these markets, millers have not considered  eastern Canadian wheat as a first option or regular choice.

“We hope to change that,” says Tony Tweed, head of baking technology at the Canadian International Grains Institute (CIGI) in Winnipeg. “By being able to provide sound technical advice based on good science, we aim to convince  potential customers in these markets to begin including eastern Canadian wheat in their blends.”

A SCIENTIFIC APPROACH
Although it would seem that gathering the science and producing that advice would be straightforward, it’s actually quite complex. “There are literally hundreds of regional differences in these flatbread products,” explains Tweed. “No one quality of flour is universal to all of these, so we’ve had to narrow down our research focus. We’ve chosen to study the flours used to make the higher-quality pita breads common to the target market area.” In general terms, the flour needed to make these breads contains both lower protein content and lower protein strength than those used to produce Western-style high-volume pan breads.

The other complicating factor in this endeavour is the almost complete lack of background data. “Very little research has been published into flour quality for these types of flatbreads and probably none at all that’s based in whole, or even in part, on Canadian wheat,” Tweed notes. “From all the information we do have, however, we’ve decided Canada Eastern Soft Red Winter wheat (CESRW) is the best bet.”

Tweed’s team will develop both small-scale laboratory and larger commercial-scale test baking methods. “We are at step one in this research project and are currently putting the equipment and supplies in place,” he says. They will first conduct tests with a ‘base’ flour representative of flour used in the target market (Hard Red Winter wheat). “Then,” Tweed says, “we’ll measure the effects of replacing varying levels of this flour with CESRW flour to determine the maximum levels that still produce a product pleasing to the consumer and of acceptable processing quality for manufacturing bakeries.” Straight-grade flours from representative samples of CESRW taken from two crop years will be used.

The optimum recommended flour blends will be based both on test bread quality and on analytical and rheological specifications for CESRW. To this end, Tweed will investigate many aspects of processing, from flour extraction rates, mixing tolerance and the effect of absorption to dough sheeting qualities and the effects of different baking temperatures. A ‘sensory scoring system’ will be created in order to judge overall quality attributes.

MARKETING THE DATA
Grain Farmers of Ontario and CIGI will generate a prioritized list of markets and customer mills to be targeted as potential export destinations. “Some of these potential customers will be canvassed to provide existing flour specifications and samples of flour currently being produced for making the targeted pita breads,” says Tweed. “We’ll use these as a guide and as a control for the test baking and pilot-scale baking trials.”

As well as a full report, Tweed’s team will format the findings into a print-ready fully illustrated colour technical bulletin that can be used for market development purposes. “In addition, our proven small-scale laboratory test baking method will be able to be used for future evaluation of further CESRW samples, new CESRW varieties and to test the suitability of any other wheat class for this end-use,” says Tweed.

“Successful completion of this project will enable the GFO to provide potential end-users of CESRW wheat with credible, technically-sound information and  advice,” he says. “Millers and bakeries  who supply mid-East markets will have all the information they need to successfully incorporate Canadian wheat and keep their customers very satisfied with high quality products.” •