The dairy industry is full of opportunities for suppliers and chefs

Al Ain Dairy factory quality control lab.
Al Ain Dairy factory quality control lab.
Saudi dairy giant Almarai Co posted an 8.7% year on year increase last month.
Saudi dairy giant Almarai Co posted an 8.7% year on year increase last month.
Al Ain Dairy factory quality control lab.
Al Ain Dairy factory quality control lab.

Fortunes are looking up for the dairy industry and local and international suppliers, and the region’s chefs are making the most of it as Jamie Knights discovers

At the beginning of last month Saudi Arabian dairy and food producer Almarai Co posted an 8.7% year-on-year rise in its second quarter net profit.

While the fact the Gulf’s largest dairy firm made SR379.5m (US $101.2m) in the three months ending June 30, compared with SR349.3m ($93.1m) in the same period a year earlier, may not be gripping news for everyone, what is interesting is that the rise was due to increased sales in all sectors.

This revelation captures the wider growth picture for dairy products in the region and it is a sector that is experiencing innovation, new companies and a greater selection of options for chefs and outlets.

The UAE liquid milk market, for instance, is valued at a very healthy approximate of $297 million, while most analysts put the growth of the Middle East dairy sector at 10-15% year-on-year – an upward trend that is expected to continue in the medium term with inward migration, rising tourism figures and increasing population numbers, all under the umbrella of a growing demand for dairy.

The rest of the world has certainly taken notice, with many European, Australian, New Zealand and American dairy providers looking to get their piece of the Middle East dairy pie.

If you consider the two major dairy importing countries are Saudi Arabia, which imports about half of its domestic needs, and the UAE, which imports more than 90%, it’s little wonder dairy providers are taking notice.

But while this growth and interest is positive, there are a number of challenges it exacerbates and a few new ones it adds to the list.

Al Ain Dairy COO Shashi Menon knows all too well the demands of the ever-expanding sector, and the energy and drive it takes to succeed.

“There are many challenges and these include raising Holstein cows in unnatural temperatures; managing demand in summer season when milk yield is traditionally at its lowest; the fluctuation of costs including the high demand of water,” he explains.

And of course in a rapidly growing market there is the constant pressure of “meeting high demand”, while developing “new and diversified lifestyle products such as Benecol Milk and Slim 0 – low fat products”.

Supply is certainly a problem faced by Italian Dairy Products says GM Maria Luisa Panzica La Manna.

“Milk, which is the main raw material, is quite expensive and in the UAE there is a shortage. Companies like ours cannot use the milk coming from Saudi because it comes pasteurised at quite high temperatures. We need to buy raw milk and pasteurise ourselves – not higher than 72oC.”

Pritchitts sales manager Middle East, Paddy Darcy, argues that the dairy sector is becoming increasingly competitive with new products “entering the market from all corners of the globe”.

“The Middle East offers manufacturers a market that has been somewhat sheltered from the global economic downturn and they are taking advantage of this,” he says.

“In a competitive market set, price is always a major challenge to any manufacturer, whilst still providing quality dairy products that constantly perform at a high level.”

And not everyone is of the opinion that the dairy market in the region has reached a suitable level across the board. Chef and partner of Dubai-based Sweets, Cafe & Bakery, Pascal Clair, believes the price of dairy is still high and he sources the majority of his dairy from Europe.

“Only the milk is good in UAE,” he says. “We will definitely need a little longer before cream is produced in the UAE.”

Local or International
Of course, with an influx of suppliers and a growth in local producers, there is the question of what’s preferred.

Panzica La Manna claims more hotel chefs are “moving to local manufacturers”, adding that labels are not so important, it’s the “freshness and ability to make change in orders with 24 hours’ notice”.

The ability to cut out import costs is a factor that Menon believes local dairy suppliers can capitalise on.

However, Darcy argues, some prefer to trust international dairy products.

“Although local dairy is often cheaper, many chefs are reluctant to trade off on quality and performance.

“Local dairies produce milk, butter, cheese and yoghurts which are very popular in the retail market, however when it comes to the professional chefs, they prefer to buy from European, or southern hemisphere manufacturers,” he says.

Exporting can be a challenge too finds Sprüngli, a dealer in Swiss confectionary and chocolates whose products are carefully hand-made in Dietikon near Zurich.

“There are always challenges in transporting high quality and fresh products so far,” Ester Crameri of Sprüngli tells Caterer Middle East.

Ultimately, it appears a balance between international and local products is the way forward. Blossom Sweets executive pastry chef, Aaron Maree says the decision to buy local or bring in from abroad is a question of quality.

“Our customers trust that we use the best and we do. Sometimes it’s local, sometimes it’s international. We are not a major hotel so our buying power is smaller and this too dictates what we buy. In the end we want to be known for great quality at the right price.”

Clair agrees: “I use some milk from UAE and all my cream comes from France, which has the best cream for pastry making.”

As the market matures and the balance between local and international companies evolves, innovation continues in the dairy marketplace. Experts are divided on where this innovation stems from. Maree believes it is the customers who drive innovation.

“Chefs can be creative, but in the end if it does not sell then even creative chefs can’t survive,” he argues. “It’s the same with companies, you can push anything, but if the customers don’t want it you are left with it filling a warehouse. Customers are smarter and more clued in to their needs and wants these days thanks to the internet.”

Panzica La Manna says Italian Dairy Products prefers to work closely with chefs regarding innovation across its product range.

“We like to engage in collaboration and it helps us determine if the chefs have specific requests for their menu creations,” she explains. “The importance of our presence here is the ability to fulfil special requests from chefs.”

As far as Al Ain Dairy is concerned it drives its own research and development through market research and feedback from its consumers.

“We run taste trials and do lengthy research in new product development,”Menon explains. “We listen to consumers when they tell us, for example, that our yoghurt is too sweet or not sweet enough. There is a strong desire to innovate here at Al Ain Dairy that is reflected in everything we do.”

Menon adds that the company could keep pace with competitors by “matching them product for product”, but it doesn’t want to do this.

“We like to lead the market by bringing new and innovative products that consumers have never seen before,” says Menon, adding that an example of one of these occasions was the company’s release of Cardamom Milk - an award-winning product whose popularity surprised the company.

While being a “true taste of Asia”, it crossed over into the mainstream of all expatriate demographics in the region. Of course, if the volumes are justified the company will accommodate hotel or flight kitchen requests, he says.

For Pritchitts, chefs are an important part of the company’s research and development programme.

“Chefs and caterers are always looking for improvements in dairy solutions to make their time in the kitchen more productive, so we work very closely with a host of Middle Eastern chefs, developing products that meet this need,” says marketing manager Evan Scicluna.

Cow, Goat, Camel
Innovation also involves exploring new forms of dairy and while cow produce demand continues to grow in line with overall dairy sector growth, goat and camel options are also gaining interest.

Menon explains that so far there is no organised dairy production in the GCC for goat milk and other products, but “camel milk products have seen astonishingly fast growth in the last 18 months”.

“Cultural and historic consumption has driven the demand for camel milk in large part raising curiosity and interest in people wanting to try it,” he continues.

“The media are fascinated with what Al Ain Dairy is accomplishing in this area. However, people have generally become aware of the supreme nutritional value associated with camel milk.”

Clair is already planning on a “new creation” using camel milk as “it is healthy and full of good things”.

But Scicluna has found that while customers are willing to try camel milk they mainly end up returning to cow.

It remains to be seen how camel dairy products make their mark in the market and whether it will move beyond the ‘try it once’ crowd to become a staple. But with dairy being such a core for the pastry and dessert chefs, there is always room for innovation.

Maree explains that dairy products are among the highest priced items for any pastry outlet or business: “But good fresh product whether, milk, cream, eggs,laban or butter are all worthwhile when the customer is absolutely thrilled with the flavour and taste of the desserts and cakes. That’s what it is all about - turning perfect ingredients into sensational delicacies,” he says.

Clair says when he was executive pastry chef at Atlantis, the Palm, prior to opening his standalone cafe in Dubai, he used “a good 15 tonnes in mix dairy product” just for the pastry component of desserts and revealed that 40% of total food spend was on dairy.

The importance of dairy innovation is clear and assistant pastry chef of Park Hyatt Dubai, Amit Nakra is in no doubt that “dairy is an integral part of a dessert menu”.

“Around 90%of the desserts we create are dairy-based, and to have a consistent and good quality dairy product supply is very essential,” he explains.

It is understandable then that when asked what the most important things are in a dairy supplier Nakra says “quality, consistency, cost and shelf life”.

Middle East Favourites
The Middle East market is renowned for its sweeter palate compared to other regions and here are some of the favourites according to
our experts.
1. Cheese cakes
2. Crème brulee
3. Ice cream/gelato
4. Flavoured fruit yoghurts
5. Umm Ali

Supplier: Camelicious
Camelicious has launched three cheeses made from camel milk.

Nabu NABULSI: a brined cheese studded with nigella seeds which gives it a peppery taste. It is suitable for use in sandwiches, salads and cooking.

AKKAWI: A white brine, un-ripened cheese. It has a smooth texture and a mild salty taste and can be consumed directly in a salad or fried in oil and spices to eat in bread.

CULTURED: A salted curd cheese made from fresh camel milk. It is processed in many degrees of firmness, ranging from soft and crumbly to hard. Its flavour varies from mild to sharp. It can be used as small cubes or crumbled into a vegetable salad.

Favourite dairy recipe
Chef Amit’s Pistachio crème brûlée
• Milk: 200ml
• Cream: 400ml
• Eggs yolk: 160g
• Sugar: 80g
• Pistachio paste: 75g

INSTRUCTIONS: Boil the milk and cream.
Mix the yolk and sugar and the pistachio paste.
Pour 130 ml in the plate and bake in bain-marie until set (100 degrees).

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