Food for foreign tastes

Queen's Awards: Lynne Curry reports on the winners who cater for a wider market
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There are 80 million potential garlic-bread eaters in Germany, and thousands of them are already sliding a part-baked French stick flavoured with continental garlic into their ovens. It comes from Northampton.

At Speedibake's factory on an industrial estate, the pungent whiff of garlic from 300,000 sticks a day fails to impart a continental aroma to its surroundings, being carefully contained by expensive enclosed air- conditioning systems.

Nevertheless, part-cooked garlic bread, exported frozen, has helped Speedibake Ltd, a subsidiary of Associated British Foods, not only sweep up a sizable chunk of Europe but effectively prevent garlic bread of other nationalities entering Britain. "So you could say we're helping the country's balance of payments," said Robert Vance, sales and marketing director, who is scathing about the "soggy" garlic bread which, he maintains, emerged from domestic ovens before consumers discovered the ready-prepared alternative.

Speedibake started from nothing 12 years ago and has since built up a turnover of pounds 100 million, a tenth of that going abroad. Garlic bread accounts for pounds 8.5 million. Factories in Wakefield and Bradford, employing 450 people with the Northampton plant, produce French bread, frozen doughnuts, American muffins and frozen dough for bakeries.

Virtually all Britain's supermarkets stock the company's bread under their own labels, and some of them produce their own bakery products from part-baked dough that starts its life in Northampton. So do shops in Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Holland and Belgium. France takes everything except the garlic bread, as do Italy and Spain.

"In the UK there was some resistance in the early days, but from the supermarket buyers, not the public," Mr Vance said. "We decided three years ago that we'd look beyond the UK and certainly with the lowering of the trade trade barriers and tariffs at the end of 1992, we decided to take a very serious position on exporting. In terms of innovation in frozen bakery products, we've been at the cutting edge."

Speedibake is one of 13 British companies in the food and drinks industry to win a Queen's Award for Export Achievement this year. Whisky, Weetabix, Kent hops, beer, processed cheese, malt extracts and meat are also making inroads into foreign markets.

Weetabix, Britain's leading cereal company, is winning its third award for export, sending cereal to Europe, the Far and Middle East, the Caribbean, South America and Africa. Coincidentally, one of its suppliers, British DiaMalt, which makes liquid and dried malt extracts and cereal syrups, joins it on the awards list.

British DiaMalt director Roy Noble said the 89-year-old company's fortunes had changed dramatically when an American company took it over from a series of owners, among them Associated British Maltsters. "We still have the same management, but our objects are more clear and we are sales driven; there is more verve and vitality."

Operating from Malt Kiln Lane in Newark, Nottinghamshire - named before its premises were built - it is now the largest free market producer of malt extract and barley syrup in Europe, with 65 staff, and exports 40 per cent of its seven-day, round-the-clock production. Common uses are night drinks, malted drinks, chocolates, cereals, beers, baby foods, biscuits, beers and ice cream.

English Hop Products, a joint venture between English Hops, the largest growers' co-operative in England, and an international organisation whose principle shareholder is German, operates from Ho Pocket Lane in Tonbridge, Kent, site of the old Hope Marketing Board, but turns over pounds 2 million in export trade in some of the newest markets in the world.

"As breweries have become more technology orientated, they are tending to require the hop product in a form other than the raw," Andrew Rice- Tucker, director of finance, said. Hop oil, alpha acid used for bittering and pelleted products are exported by EHP, which has a regular staff of 30 - almost doubling in the season - and a turnover of pounds 4 million.

Russia is in English Hop Product's territory but more competition has muscled in on the market since EHP started trading. It now exports to Europe, the USA and Australia and on a smaller scale to Japan, the Middle East and South America.