Issue Nov/Dec 06
The blossoming flour
Whatever the type of flour you need, Ceres NV-SA can supply it, at a quality and consistency that can be relied on
For over 100 years, Ceres NV-SA has been in the business of milling wheat for flour. Based in Brussels, Belgium, and with a second facility in Harelbeke, it’s a part of the French Soufflet Group and currently employs around 200 people. They tend to stay around: Jean-Pierre Roels, the COO, has been with the company for 30 years.
“We supply milled flour to a wide range of customers, from industrial food companies to street corner bakeries, as well as to developing countries,” he said. “Anything you want to do with flour, we can do for you.” About half its production is worldwide export, to countries like Libya and Angola, and elsewhere.It used to have a valuable trade in the Middle East but that has dwindled, as customers built their own milling capacity. “It’s a natural evolution for countries to want to be self-sufficient. We had to reduce overall capacity when structural export demand decrease was a fact and so we had to rebalance our overall production potential.”
Milling is more complex than people who aren’t involved with the business may anticipate. There’s a lot more to milling than simply grinding between hard surfaces until it’s fine enough.
“If you take one type of wheat, and turn it into flour, you have a basic flour. But there’s all kinds of blending required,” he explained. “We buy wheat from northern France, southern France, from Germany – they all have different and specific characteristics and properties. What wheat we use will be dependent on what the customer is going to do with it. A typical French baguette is made from a different type of white flour to an English loaf. The flour used by a street-corner bakery is different to that used by an industrial producer.” There are all sorts of different types of flour, coming from different countries all over the world. There are local variations; a baker in Gent may well produce a different type of bread to a colleague in Aix. It applies even within the UK: bread in Scotland can be markedly different from the English equivalent. What is invariably true is that people like what they’re used to, and it will be the way it is among other aspects, because of the specifications of the flour they use. But bread is only one product made with flour. Biscuits, waffles and other products all require different properties, too.
“A smaller baker can feel the product as they’re working it and can adapt to variations in the raw material,” he continued. “But industrial scale production is different. Biscuits, for example, could be coming off an industrial production line at 30,000-40,000 cookies an hour. Such a production process has been set up to operate in a particular way, right through from mixing to the packaging. If you’re putting a few cookies loose into a bag, it doesn’t matter so much but, if you’re putting 25 or 30 biscuits into a packet, standardisation is extremely important. The biscuits all have to be the same size and the same height, in order to fit the pre-formed packet at the end of the production line. We need to provide he customer with a flour that will produce exactly the right size, every time. There aren’t many milling companies that can do what we do.” So, blending is a vital part of Ceres’ expertise and to the mix of kinds of wheat is added the effect of variations caused by the weather.
“Getting a consistent product throughout the year isn’t easy, but we have years of experience and expertise to call on. Our job is to adapt,” said Jean-Pierre. “Our customers never ask us for a particular type of wheat, they ask us for certain characteristics and they want consistency.” It may mean using Belgian wheat for a couple of months, then going on to northern French, or German, or a blend. “We have the reputation of being very accurate and very professional in the production process. Our customers aren’t interested in quality changes throughout the year; we can’t expect them to adapt. It’s our job to use our knowledge and expertise to produce a consistent end product. We guarantee our flour, we keep our promises, and we stick to our decisions, even if the decision could have been better. The customer is important, we like to work with them and look forward, rather than waiting for problems.”
Ceres mills about 1800 tonnes of wheat a day, so the fact that it rises to the challenge of achieving consistency, throughout the year, is quite an impressive achievement. As a group, the company invests both in its processes – to achieve that consistency of quality – and in market research, so that it is prepared for changes in demand. And another challenge is rising up the agenda, one that may well get more serious into the future.
“Belgium has plans for 1,500,000 litres of new bio-fuel capacity, over the next six to seven years; there have been three new plants built over the past couple of years,” said Jean-Pierre. “They use wheat and other cereals and that wheat is wheat we can’t buy.” So, chances are that the existing offer and demand levels will be affected, which will have an automatic impact on the price settings. But that isn’t the only consideration. Wheat finally used for human consumption has to respect certain specific quality standards. Again, that will be an aspect which might influence price settings in a different way.” He sees problems over the next few years as the market adjusts – and there’s an ethical issue, as well. “In some countries, they don’t have food and we’ll be burning wheat to keep our cars going.” But the longer-term future is positive.
“There are some new problems that will affect the market but we will change, adapt to them and surf the top of the wave again,” said Jean-Pierre.