Baking with the Middle East Technical Exchange


During the last week of May, six representatives came to participate in Cigi’s Middle East Technical Exchange, a program that guided people from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Bahrain through tours, demonstrations, and technology sessions, discussing the characteristics of Canadian wheat and how it can meet the specific needs of processors and consumers in the Middle East.

This past week was my first at Cigi, and while I’ve lived in Winnipeg my whole life, agriculture is a world away, completely foreign to me. I always knew that it was an important industry to Canada, and more specifically the Prairies, but I didn’t realize the extent of the impact Canada has on the global grain industry. A week ago, I couldn’t tell you what CWRS or durum wheat were, let alone their differences. Now, I may not be a pro, but at least I’m not as agriculturally ignorant as I once was.

Winnipeg may have been completely foreign to the program participants, the way Canadian agriculture and all its nuances is more or less foreign to me, but agriculture is something they are familiar with, comfortable with, and it quickly became apparent how important this opportunity to be at Cigi was to them. Amongst the group there were millers, a purchasing specialist, a lab technician, and people responsible for quality control and new product development. Eager to learn about Canadian grains and in particular Canadian wheat, these participants from the Middle East were always inquisitive, finding new questions for Cigi’s technical specialists. 

And, more specifically, the specialists in the baking area.

On day two of the program, we suited up in our lab coats and hairnets, and headed to Cigi’s pilot bakery for a technical session on baking, an area of particular interest for the group.

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The Middle East is one of Canada’s prime markets for wheat. According to the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC), the Middle East imported more than 1.4 million tonnes of Canadian wheat in 2013-14. They use wheat to make bread. Whether it’s flat bread or pan bread, it’s a staple of the diet that finds its way into every meal. However, they also use wheat in other foods such as couscous and burghul, a cereal food that is made from various types of wheat, including durum.

“We get wheat from lots of places—Australia, Europe, but also Canada,” says Taha Merghani, one of the program’s participants from Oman, where he works as a quality control manager in milling. “Canadian wheat is what we use for bread.”

Taha says that he and the other representatives learned so much on the program. They are happy to know that Cigi is cognizant of the differences between baking in Canada and baking in the Middle East. Simply put, the conditions are different. It is much hotter and more humid there. Fermentation times will be different. They need to know that Canadian wheat will perform the way they want it to back home. Cigi’s technical staff address these concerns. To be able to simulate the climate conditions of anywhere in the world, Cigi has all kinds of equipment in its pilot bakery to be able to effectively show how Canadian wheat and flour can be used. You have to take into account where you are in the world for such a specific process. It’s important to have good lines of communication established between all those involved—the farmer who grows the crop, the researchers and marketers, and ultimately the buyers—to reach that desired end-product. Cigi programs like this one are an important part of that process.

The group learned a lot. They were surprised that even the way you shape the dough before baking it can yield a substantially different product. Yvonne Supeene, Cigi’s Head of Baking Technology, showed them how to “cross-grain” the dough, which turns the dough 90 degrees before the final shaping, in turn changing the way the crumb cells reflect light when looking at a slice of the bread. While it is whiter, the bread is softer as more cells are created, and the crumb strength is stronger, making it a better surface for spreading butter or other toppings.

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Yvonne is slicing the loaf that she “cross-grained.” You can see the difference in the loaves as the dough she’s cutting has four sections turned 90 degrees.

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They never knew how big a role shaping the bread plays on cell formation, but the participants could tell that the cross-grained bread was whiter in appearance and softer to the touch.

We also got to see a variety of Canadian wheats used in the baking of Arabic flat breads prominent in the Middle Eastern culture such as chapati and Lebanese bread.

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Salim Al Hafidh from Oman tries his hand at making chapati bread.

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He rolls out the dough into a beautiful chapati.

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Next up, Ayman Jaffar Saleh from Bahrain gives it a try.

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The final product! Who knew baking could be so fun?

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Naif Abdulrahman Alsubayil and Khalid Saleh A. Abubakr from Saudi Arabia, and Taha Merghani enjoy the fruits of their labour.

All in all, there was a lot to take away from this technical session, and these men certainly felt satisfied, but it’s hard not to, munching away on fresh bread and cookies.

The Middle East Technical Exchange didn’t end there, though. During the week, we participated in a variety of other discussions and demonstrations:

  • Received an introductory rundown of the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC) and the processes used to inspect and grade wheat.
  • Saw the testing methods of wheat and flour quality and their relationship with end-product quality with Cigi’s analytical services staff.
  • Discovered firsthand how mills handle, store, clean, and temper wheat and tailor these processes to meet the requirements of the Middle East
  • Saw and discussed the demonstration of the commercial milling process in Cigi’s pilot mill
  • Visited Cigi’s noodle plant to discuss the quality of Canadian wheat and its noodle applications
  • Learned about pulses and their health benefits when used as ingredients in conventional food products

And we also visited a farm.

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Ayman driving a tractor.

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 Farmer Ernie Wiens in La Salle, Manitoba shows the group how he seeds his crop.

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Met some cows. All in a day’s work!

On Thursday evening, the group left for Vancouver where they toured a terminal elevator and visited the Vancouver offices of the CGC, before leaving Canada on Saturday.

The Middle East Technical Exchange was a great learning opportunity. The participants soaked up so much knowledge and information, and you know what? So did I. At least now I can say I grew up on the prairies and I’m not such a sheltered city boy anymore.

Mike Kontzamanis is a Creative Communications student at Red River College in Winnipeg, working at Cigi for the summer.  Watch for more articles from Mike about Cigi’s programs over the next several weeks.