French may be the language of love. But throughout the 28 distinctive countries that currently make up the European Union — that is, until Brexit is resolved — more than 740 million people speak 24 different “official” languages and dozens of dialects in a continent that’s just slightly larger than the United States.
As a result, it’s not surprising that a visitor might get a little confused when hearing someone from this continent for the first time.
“Most Americans come to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re Swedish.’ I say, ‘No, I’m Swiss,’ ” said Thomas Eisele, chief executive officer of food service at Valora Management, a Muttenz, Switzerland-based firm that owns Brezelbӓckerie Ditsch, a global supplier of traditional and German-style pretzels and other products. “Yes, there is a European Union, but it’s so different depending on where you are. And it’s not only the language but also the culture.”
While food brings everyone to the table, the European market for baked foods is a polyglot of pastries, bread and biscuits that varies by location and is often rooted in history ranging from centuries-old Lithuanian sourdough ryes and fruited Slovakian kolaches to Finnish crisps and Portuguese pão doce sweet bread.
In fact, bakers don’t have to meander far throughout Europe to experience that culinary differentiation. Just drive around Switzerland, which is almost a microcosm of the continent’s multiculturalism. It’s a country where the predominant language — and type of bread, for that matter — may shift from German to French to Italian, depending on where someone lives.
“We have regional differences from the southern part of Switzerland where bread is more like the ciabatta-type, yet in the northern part, it is a sourdough-type and also rich flour breads,” Mr. Eisele explained. “Even within Switzerland, there is not one type of bread that’s very dominant.”
And while the sandwich may be on a crisp baguette, chewy pretzel or a dense multigrain roll, the fillings also change by locale.
“In the north, it’s more of a German ham or pork,” Mr. Eisele said. “In the south, it’s more of a prosciutto-type. In the French areas, you’d never see pork. You would see brie there or another local fromage.”
Even grains and sourdough fermentation vary by geography, said Christian Pelisson, managing director, Paillasse International, Neuchatel, Switzerland, which exports its proprietary concentrates and licensed formulas for producing rustic, crusty bread.
“The more northern you get, the more they use flavorful sourdough,” he said. “Overall, you have stronger sourdoughs in the north, or acetic, and milder ones in the south, or lactic. In the north, they talk about their ryes. In Italy, they talk about lievito naturale or lievito madre.”
Tug of war
As local bakeries cling to their cultural identities, Mr. Pelisson suggested macro trends ranging from healthy eating to clean label are influencing bread bakers’ offerings to include multigrain, spelt and other ancient grains that they hadn’t incorporated into their traditional product portfolios.
Even gluten-free, non-allergen, low-fat and sugar-free products are gaining popularity among consumers.
“Such products are witnessing higher sales as consumers do not want to compromise on taste but require healthy ingredients in their baked goods,” explained Sourya Das Gupta, senior research analyst, Mordor Intelligence.
Overall, the E.U.’s total bakery consumption reached €147.3 billion ($165 billion) in 2016, according to Gira, a research firm. Bread accounted for 54% of sales, followed by patisserie (24%), viennoiserie (15%) and savory pastry (7%). By volume, Gira reported that E.U. consumption reached nearly 40 million tons, of which 77% came from bread, followed by patisserie (11%), viennoiserie (9%) and savory pastry (3%). At 71% fresh-baked goods dominate bakery consumption while packaged products with a long shelf life (24%) and packaged-to-bake items (5%) make up the remainder.
From 2011 to 2016, European bakery consumption remained almost static, decreasing 0.2% per year, noted Christopher Houston, market intelligence manager, Lantmӓnnen Unibake, which supplied the Gira data. Based in Copenhagen, Lantmӓnnen Unibake operates 36 bakeries, including its artisan bakery in St. Petersburg, Fla., that produces a wide variety of European-style bread, pastries and other frozen baked foods for more than 20 international markets.
Like in North America, Mr. Houston sees “premiumization of everything from beer to burgers” as a major trend along with the much-publicized movement toward plant-based foods.
“Price is still a focus particularly in the retail sector as discount chains continue to develop market share across all European markets,” he added.
Despite some uncertainty over Brexit in the U.K., Mr. Houston sees a positive outlook for the European baking community. He noted urbanization and contemporary lifestyles encourage consumers to eat out more frequently and seek convenient food formats while sustainability — defined as environmental impact, social responsibility and health and wellness — remains a paramount priority with E.U. operators and consumers.
Mr. Das Gupta suggested this perpetual evolution of the European dining experience has led to food service concepts that are responding to customer expectations by offering more functional, natural, fresh and nutritious baked foods.
“Factors such as demand for ethnic foods like Asian cuisine have also led to the development of new products that are sustainable and made with locally sourced ingredients with labelling for transparency,” he observed. “Moreover, the rising trend of customization in food service outlets is enabling consumers to build their own pizzas and sandwiches according to their tastes and preferences compared to prepackaged baked.”
Although not nearly as prevalent as in the United States, the elevation in away-from-home food consumption combined with overall lower birth rates and other demographic shifts also contributed to declining sales of full loaves of bread, said Sebastian Gooding, c.e.o., Ditsch, the Mainz, Germany-based pretzel company.
“Smaller families are making fewer sandwiches at home,” he noted. “The percentages of single households and double-income families with no kids are increasing, and these consumers are eating outside of the home.”
For bakers serving the proliferation of takeaway shops, however, the demographic shift is good news.
“That’s where the quality of bread has increased,” Mr. Gooding said. “You want a good sandwich. You don’t want to cope with a mediocre-quality carrier. It has to be a perfect sourdough bread or pretzel.”
But global trends aren’t the only factors impacting sales. Last year, European bakers had to cope with something unexpected — the unusually hot weather caused a slight dip in bakery consumption on the highest temperature days, said Sam Schira, market research and insights manager, E.U. & Africa, Middle East, Asia Pacific, for Jackson, Mich.-based Dawn Foods, which has served the European community since the 1990s. Typically, Europeans tend to eat more ice cream than baked goods, especially during the warmer summer months.
“Despite the hot weather, the overall consumption of bakery products has increased by roughly 1% over the past year,” Mr. Schira said. “This growth is largely driven by bakers who constantly reinvent classic European pastries along with the increasing popularity of traditionally defined American-style products. The prime environment for bakery innovation continues to develop as we see an increase in bakery consumption and disposable income, combined with consumers placing more value on experiences than in years prior.”
While the overall market is performing well, Mr. Schira pointed out that success is not evenly dispersed across European channels.
“The increased quality of supermarkets and commercial bakery products is felt throughout the industry,” he observed. “Due to this, many artisan bakeries are having to rethink their overall value proposition and identify what can help them stand out from the pack. While many artisan bakeries are closing, new bakeries are opening daily, with greater differentiated offerings than ever before.”
The downswing is dramatic, especially in Germany where the number of village bake shops has declined from more than 50,000 a half century ago to about 12,000 today. Along with succession issues, including the next generation leaving the industry, family bakeries must compete with supermarkets and takeaway shops offering a broader menu of higher-quality items than in the past.
“The unfortunate reality is artisanal bakeries who try to compete only on price or convenience are going to have a very tough road ahead,” Mr. Schira said.
A flood of other factors is arming the local vs. global battle in the European baking community.
“Increasing tourism is driving the demand for instant, ready-to-eat, globally recognized, low-cost and easy-to-store products such as donuts and muffins, which is leading to a greater number of small kiosks and roadside shops,” Mr. Das Gupta observed.
“Yes, there is a European Union, but it’s so different depending on where you are. And it’s not only the language but also the culture.”
Thomas Eisele, Valora Management
Shelf life and convenience now play a greater role, even among European consumers who define quality as synonymous with fresh-baked. In some cases, Mr. Das Gupta noted, regional products such as French pain de campagne have increased in popularity because they have a slightly longer shelf life compared with baguettes. Moreover, immigration from Vietnam and Japan — and more recently from the Middle East — have led to companies offering regional and ethnic baked goods such as the Vietnamese banh mi instead of the classic baguette.
Additionally, he said, advances in automation are providing stiff competition to handmade bake shops.
“Industrial-scale baking and advanced freezing technology have made it possible for companies to mass-produce loaves, rolls and pastries that can be frozen and shipped around the country to supermarkets,” Mr. Das Gupta noted. “Such technologies have enabled consumers to heat up the products, thereby making it a convenient option for on-the-go purposes when compared to traditional products that have a short shelf life.”
Mr. Eisele, however, cautioned against underestimating Europeans’ embedded fondness for home-spun favorites. In Germany, for example, there are reportedly more than 3,000 different varieties of bread and rolls.
“The regionality just gives the extra twist and attractiveness to the assortment,” Mr. Eisele explained. “That’s where you add the local flavor and local shape, and sometimes it’s only the shape of a bread that makes the customer feel at home and attracted to the products.”
It’s with not only baked foods but also sandwich fillings such as Neufchâte cheese and Parma ham. Even a global giant like Chicago-based McDonald’s Corp. recognizes the need to cater to local tastes with sandwiches such as the McVegan in Sweden, where one in 10 people describe themselves as vegan or vegetarian.
“If McDonald’s has to show variation, you need to adjust to regionality all throughout Europe,” Mr. Eisele said.
Take the classic croissant. Its flavor and texture remain steadfastly French throughout Europe — unlike some of the roll-like croissants offered by fast-food chains — but its shape takes many forms, said Filip Eeckhout, marketing manager, Vandemoortele, a Ghent, Belgium-based supplier of frozen baked goods, including pre-proofed, frozen dough croissants.
“You have the straight croissant, which is most popular in Belgium, Italy and France, and you have the curved, which is more popular in Germany. Why? I don’t know, but those are the regional preferences,” Mr. Eeckhout said. “In Italy, they will fill it with chocolate, strawberry or apricots, so you see many differences.”
Eating occasions also vary by country.
“In France, it’s mainly a breakfast item whereas in The Netherlands, it is mainly considered as bread,” Mr. Eeckhout noted. “As long as it’s plain, the Dutch will cut it and put cheese in it for a sandwich. In Italy, it’s served mainly for breakfast with a cappuccino.”
Vandemoortele also produces multiple formats of focaccia at its Genoa, Italy, bakery.
“In Italy, it’s sold like pizza,” Mr. Eeckhout said. “You say you want one piece, and they cut it by weight before you. In the rest of Europe, people put some ham, cheese or vegetables in between it as a sandwich.”
Exporting beyond Europe
Likewise, ingredients are almost as local as hometown politics.
“Importing cheese from another country doesn’t make sense because consumers expect you to provide it locally,” Mr. Eisele said. “They may ask, ‘Why are you buying cheese from China when the guy down the road makes cheese, and I like his cheese?’”
He noted Valora’s units operate 2,800 stores, including bakeries, pretzel shops, kiosks and more, under Ditsch and other brands throughout Europe, including Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Austria and Luxembourg. Its manufacturing facilities offer between 60 and 80 stock-keeping units of pretzels, ranging from a ciabatta for parts of Switzerland to the authentic chewy Oktoberfest-style pretzel found in Munich and the southern Bavarian region of Germany. Ditsch also operates a pretzel facility in Cincinnati that makes softer pretzel bites, sticks and twists tailored to the U.S. market.
Ditsch, Lantmӓnnen Unibake, Vandemoortele and Paillasse were among more than two dozen international companies exporting their European fare at the recent International-Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA)’s annual convention and trade show in Orlando, Fla.
Some exhibitors like St. Pierre Groupe, Manchester, U.K., have made significant inroads into the U.S. in-store bakery market in recent years by selling classic brioche packaged bread and rolls, as well as brioche hot dog buns and slider rolls formulated specifically for the American market.
“What we do is take the best of European bakeries, particularly French, and twist and innovate that to make it contemporary for U.S. consumers,” noted Paul Baker, founder of St. Pierre.
The line’s brioche and croissants are produced by copackers in France. Its waffles are produced by a Belgium copacker but made with a brioche-style batter.
“What we do as a business is say, ‘The Belgians are the best at waffles, and the French are the best at brioche. Let’s see if we can do the best of both,’” Mr. Baker said.
IDDBA even included a contingent from Northern Ireland for the first time. Holmes Bakery in Craigavon, Northern Ireland, promoted its Traybakes treats, which are a tray of finger-cut desserts that come in Rocky Road, Caramel and assorted varieties.
John Hopkins, sales and development director for Irwin’s Bakery, Portadown, Northern Ireland, featured packages of Jammy Joey’s, consisting of round balls of sponge-like cake covered in raspberry jam and coconut.
“People still make the family favorites at home,” Mr. Hopkins said. “Baking is still a part of the culture. They still bake in big and small batches, but the mom-and-pops are not around as much as before. It used to be that every town had one or two, but the supermarkets, in-store bakeries and convenience stores with thaw-and-serve are everywhere now.”
While macro trends influence all parts of the global baking industry, celebrating local heritage still holds true throughout Europe as generations hand down their family recipes and regional favorites that have passed the test of time.
For many people, it doesn’t matter how you say it. There’s still no taste like home.