The search for the perfect apple: in France with Blue Whale
Back in May, Wellocks launched a competition with French fruit grower Blue Whale to create some magical dishes using the humble apple - Granny Smith, Braeburn, Joya or Pink Lady. We took some of our winning chefs and their representatives off to France to claim their prize and join us on our search for another perfect ingredient - the best apples in France.
Our intrepid chefs were Steve Groves (Roux at Parliament Square), Tim Allen (Chapel Street), Nick Henn (Moor Hall), Danny Parker (House of Tides) and Craig Bronger (Gidleigh Park) and they set off to stay with Blue Whale in Montauban near the Pyrenees in the company of our sales director Jonny Baron and development chef Leigh Myers.
Blue Whale began as a group of fruit growers in the Garonne valley in 1950. Today it’s an apple specialist with over 300 growers across the south-west, the Loire Valley, the south-east and the Alps. It’s the number one French apple exporter and also supplies plums, pears, grapes and kiwi fruits.
Our three-day, two-night stay gave us an opportunity to explore the area, meet the growers and broaden our understanding of Blue Whale and why its apples are simply the best. The visit was perfectly timed for the harvest and our chefs had a unique opportunity to visit the orchards and packhouses, sample the apples and discover new flavours.
The journey began at 7am on the first day, whilst it was still dark outside, with a visit to the orchard in Moissac where Ariane, Pink Lady, Fuji and Golden varieties are grown.
We drove through a mind-blowing number of rows of apples - all covered in miles of netting. Blue Whale export manager Sylvain Brard explained that this was to protect against pests and seasonal hailstones which can damage an entire crop.
Local growers took us around the orchard, explaining how to grow the perfect apple.
One of the biggest requirements is water and the many rivers in the area provide an abundance. Next is the size and shape of the tree; orchards need to be the same height and width to ensure the perfect amount of light reaches each branch. To achieve this, roots need to grow down, not out and branches need to grow out, not up. Tree growth is managed by splicing a different tree variety on a young sapling cut to a foot above the ground - a process that’s repeated one more time. With three different trees growing as one, the fruiticulteurs, as the growers are called, can make their own apple varieties for the best look, colour, smell and most importantly, taste.
The results of this approach were clear and the amount of fruit in bundles on the trees was amazing to see. On higher ground, another orchard was producing Joya apples which were were huge and tasted very sweet and crisp straight off the tree - a very enjoyable table apple.
As well as the nets, one ingenious way they control pests without using pesticides is by using hormones to stop female bugs from reproducing on the trees. Little white cards are impregnated with the hormones and hung from the branches of every fourth or fifth tree.
What amazed us all the most was the picking process. As a huge organisation, we assumed picking would be with state of the art equipment. We were so wrong. The apples are all picked by hand - with four people per aisle taking the fruit off the tree and carefully placing them into buckets to avoid bruising. The Joya apples were all individually snipped off the trees using scissors.