Reflecting on a desert confectionery highlight of the year

Confectionery Production editorial board member Andy Baxendale recently visited Saudi Arabia, where he helped launch the country’s first ever range of British fudge. Here is his account of his experiences as a Middle Eastern sweet pioneer.

The view of Saudi Arabia held by many people in the western world is based on its rules and ideology.

Yes, it is different – but people in Jeddah and Riyadh have a surprising number of things in common with those in London, Manchester and even my home town of Wigan.

One of those things is a willingness to try and make the best out of life.

The Saudi people love their sweets – and the more that something looks, feels and tastes of opulence and high quality the better.

So that is how I came to be contacted by Dr Abdullah Al-Ariefy, the owner of Le Concheur sweet manufacturers in Jeddah.

He had done his research on me and wanted my help in developing a range of fudge and other sweets which he believed would be well received in Saudi Arabia.

By his own admission, I would be starting from scratch because, while his staff were very skilled in producing a number of sweet and confectionery items, they didn’t have the first clue about fudge.

Fudge was identified as a treat that would be popular because of its unique, luxurious texture and flavour and because, unlike chocolate, it doesn’t melt in hot temperatures.

The Saudi people’s willingness to “get on with things” meant that they were completely unphased by the arrival of a 6ft hairy biker from Lancashire and proved to be the most warm, friendly and welcoming people you could image, both to work and socialise with.

While some of the laws there seem strange to a Westerner like me, and people tend to stay at home in the evenings because there isn’t that much of a night-time leisure industry and, quite frankly, there isn’t much to do if you do go out.

But that doesn’t stop the Saudis enjoying life, and the memories I have of those I met are of happy, smiling people.

I was welcomed into people’s homes and some of the food which I was served, including the most fantastic kebabs, is a reason to visit the country in itself.

I trained the Le Concheur staff from scratch and we achieved all our initial goals in terms of recipe development and training and production at the company’s new shop using my recipes has now begun.

We made the fudge using local ingredients and flavourings such as cardamom, cinnamon, Arabic coffee and dates, ginger and candied hazelnuts.

I also instructed them how to make bake stable fudge for inclusion into their cake range, and fat coated fudge for inclusion into their ice cream ranges

Luckily, I was able to bring some of the fudge home with me and family and friends have said that those locally-sourced ingredients make the finished product taste sublime.

Demand has already been so great that a second store is due to be opened this month at nearby Red Sea Mall.

It will sell fudge to families going to the first cinema to be opened in Jeddah after the Saudi government’s decision to lift the 35-year ban on movie screenings in the country.

I didn’t stop at fudge, however, and introduced the people at Le Concheur to a lot of new confectionery from the UK, such as peanut brittle, fondant creams, toffee sauce, tablet, butterscotch, toffee and high boil lollipops.

We also successfully developed a brand new product made entirely from date sugar, date syrup – known as “dhibs”, and cocoa powder – which didn’t even require cooking.

There are already plans for me to go back to Saudi to build on the success of the launch and I am also hoping to expand the idea into neighbouring countries and the UAE and Dubai, where there is an obvious market for anything high quality and luxurious.

It’s all a long way from my humble beginnings as a product development manager for Chewits in the UK and it’s not something I expected to be doing when I was starting out in the business.

But what it does show is that this business throws up the most wonderful opportunities, especially if you are open to new ideas and prepared to try the unusual and experiment.

I remember how deflated I felt when, back in my early years, some of the Chewit flavours I suggested were rejected as too outlandish.

Making and selling British fudge to Saudi Arabia? You can’t get more off the wall than that, and it has been an outstanding success.

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