The cut and crust
The variety of bread and pastry products available in the Middle East has exploded in recent years due to an increase in both consumer demand and the number of qualified chefs. Ben Watts speaks to some of the region’s bread and pastry players
Pastries and bakery items have been an integral part of the human diet for millennia and the Gulf region has played a significant role in the evolution of such products.
Arabic baked goods such as manaqeesh, fatayer and various flatbreads remain popular, but the rise of western-style supermarkets and resorts has resulted in a rapid influx of alternatives.
Executive pastry chef at Atlantis, The Palm Philippe Morbelli (below) believes pastries and breads are essential everyday products.
“Being French I think bread is an essential part of a meal,” he comments.
“Pastries are also very important, but at the end of the day they are more of a showcase for the hotel.”
Morbelli’s colleague at the Atlantis resort, chief baker Matthieu Thebert, adds: “Our hotel is huge and each restaurant has its own particular recipes for bread, all of which are made on site and range in style from Italian to French.
“When the hotel is full we have 3700 guest to serve at breakfast — that means there are a lot of croissants and a lot of bread to serve.”
Executive pastry chef at The Monarch Dubai, Renate Bruckner, claims demand for healthier items is growing across the region.
“The demand for health-conscious pastry products has grown here over the last few years,” Bruckner notes.
The pastry expert points out diabetic-friendly sugar-free pastries and allergy-aware items, which exclude nuts and gluten, are also on the rise.
“There is a very high demand for croissants, mainly outside the hotel in the surrounding office towers; traditional products are also very important, but the demand for healthy products is definitely growing and not just in Dubai,” she adds.
Operations manager at Dubai-based ABC Baking, Amer Abu Salem, says that Arabic varieties remain popular across the region.
“Arabic bread is big business across the region — the most popular being Lebanese and Pita varieties,” Salem explains.
“Arabic sweets are also very diverse and tend to be very popular during Arab or Islamic feasts, peeking during the holy month of Ramadan.
“They are very sweet and rich in ghee and fat, which is perhaps why people try very hard to avoid them during the rest of the year,” he adds.
The Monarch’s Bruckner believes that the region’s baked offerings are “definitely improving”.
“The Middle East, Dubai in particular, has some very good pastry chefs; there are people coming together from all over the world and everyone in the city gives their input,” she notes.
“You get a lot of ideas and I think Dubai and Middle Eastern countries benefits from this cultural mix.”
However Atlantis’ Morbelli suggests too many cultures in one place could have a negative effect on the quality of pastry and bakery products.
“As trends change and demand and competition grow you really need to find new ideas,” he points out.
“I think we really need to go back to the basics — in Dubai there is too much training and influences coming from different countries and I think identities are being mixed and becoming loose.”
But Morbelli admits that the quality of traditional local bakery and pastry items has improved in recent times.
“I’ve lived in the region before — I moved away and returned to standards that have definitely increased,” he says.
ABC Baking’s Salem notes that the region’s offerings today are extremely wide-ranging.
“Bakery products can be extremely versatile as an ingredient and there are an infinite number of varieties,” he says.
“Savoury and sweet snacks like puffs can be fried, baked, steamed, baked then fried or baked then baked.
“Bakery products can be eaten at breakfast or as a snack, at lunch or even at dinner,” adds Salam.
He suggests the most popular bakery and pastry products available across the GCC can be divided into four main categories summarising their ethnic backgrounds.
“Firstly there are Arabic flatbreads, which differ in shape and size from one country to the other, while Arabic sweets are certainly sweeter and on the heavy side of pastry offerings — they include a lot of nuts and sometimes dairy products,” he explains.
“Then the Asian sub-continent provides a lot of flatbreads that are formulated differently. They are can be fried, spicy, or filled. On the pastry side we find a lot of sweetness and the inclusion of Asian spices.
“American breads which we tend to call soft breads are also very prominent across the region. There is not a lot of imagination put into these types of breads; however on the pastry side we can find a little more inventiveness in muffins, donuts and cookies.
“European style breads are a relatively recent introduction to the region. They tend to be on the hard and crusty side of the spectrum, however the bakery sector is extremely diverse. When it comes to European pastries the list is endless,” he explains.
Fears that the global credit crisis will impair the quality of bakery and pastry products across the region’s luxury sector have yet to make a serious impact.
The Atlantis’ Morbelli comments: “[The economic crisis] is not a concern at the moment and if things remain the same it will be fine — however most of our raw products come from Europe and if it hits us we may not be able to afford the ingredients we require, such as the flour from France.
“We aim to focus on the quality of the product, but we also need to consider our margins at the end of the day,” he adds.
The Monarch’s Bruckner is more concerned about the logistical challenges facing her pastry kitchen.
“Sometimes there’s a shortage of items and you have to order in advance more often than you would in other countries, such as those in Europe,” she says.
Atlantis’ Mor-belli agrees. “One of the hardest jobs is to bring in the right flour from France and to get the right products to each outlet.”
Pastry chef Bruckner is however, concerned that some the Monarch’s guests are missing that all important sweet-tooth.
“As a business hotel we have a lot of male customers who don’t eat too many sweets, however there are still products like our own Monarch Cake that have become very popular,” she concludes.