Vive le terroir

The search for the ‘perfect ingredient’ takes James back to France  – this time to Brittany – to learn more about the famous French terroir and discover some hidden gems.

As with all our products, it’s vital that we understand how and why they are special. When we arrived in Brittany, the sun was shining and it soon became apparent that the area was very different to anything we normally come across. Joining me on this trip was Martin Wishart from Scotland, head chef of Loch Lomond Restaurant, Graham Cheevers and our own Scottish manager Paul Gunn.

Very soon we were turning into a field where a farmer was waiting for us. It was a beautiful sight, with the field running down a slight gradient and overlooking the bay. This is where ‘le terroir’ becomes apparent and it starts with the fact that the Gulf Stream runs through it, something that is only shared by Cornwall and some places in Canada! The area has a reputation that has been built on cauliflowers, which are produced all year round. They have also developed many new products including gariguette strawberry, heirloom and coeur de boeuf tomatoes, globe and baby artichokes, potatoes and a full range of baby vegetables.

The result of the specific conditions in this area is no frost through the winter, plenty of rainfall and sunshine. This micro climate extends inland about 10 miles only along the coast. But ‘le terroir’ does not stop there, and we visited several farmers throughout the day who were all very passionate about their crops and all running small farms of around 25 hectares, mainly as one man operations and sharing a couple of farm workers when necessary. This allows them to be the ultimate hands on farmers and, coupled with the historic past, it’s here that the quality really comes through.

The day was not finished there as we then had a further two hours drive to St Malo, it was worth it though as a hard day was rounded of with a stroll along the sea front and a lovely dinner watching the sunset over the water.

The next day began with another early start, followed by a three hour drive to Damville and Michel Cluizel Chocolatier.

The history of the place is apparent here. As soon as you set foot into the factory, it’s not just in the old machinery like the copper pots used for heating the praline mixtures and the grinding machines, still made of stone, that makes this obvious. It’s also in the old methods and importantly, in the staff, with their years of experience, who are still using the tried and tested, time-honoured methods.

Marc Cluizel instills this tradition into his suppliers – six cocoa bean plantations across the world. To ensure the best beans and exclusivity, Marc works directly with the growers, guaranteeing an over the market price to get the best product. They have been chosen on the same principles ‘le terroir’ again! The growers have history, passion and pride in their product and importantly, they are able to produce an amazing bean because of their location.

It becomes very apparent as you taste their single estate chocolate that they all have their own characters. One has a smokey background taste, because the cocoa bean comes from a plantation next to a volcano. Another has a massive mango flavour – you guessed it, it was once a mango plantation.

“A highlight for me was a trip to my favourite chocolatier Michel Cluizel in Damville. They make the best praline I have ever tasted. These guys are at the top of their game and I highly recommend you try a sample,” said Martin.

Blown away by the chocolate experience we set off to Paris and an adventure on the Champs Elysees. The phrase “he who dares, wins”  sprung to mind! Getting the guys out of the bar proved to be hard work and the well planned itinerary was forgotten.

It was a mission getting everyone up the following morning, but a visit to Rungis is one to get us on our toes. Croissants and coffee always taste better in France and they were devoured quickly as we made our way around the various markets. The day then came to a standstill as we headed south to Chailly en Bière, normally a 30 minute drive, but today on another French bank holiday it took over 90 minutes!

However, all was forgotten when we arrived at Marc and Sonia’s farm. ‘Le terroir’ springs up again in a big way as you can feel the history and see the huge development they’ve undertaken. Sheer hard work and passion to have the best product has driven them.

Sonia summed this up, “The great grandfather was already well known in Les Halles de Paris for his fine herbs that were always the best quality. Grandpa Beausse (Marc) moved to Chailly en Bière in 1975 and kept on growing beautiful, fine herbs just like his father before him. Since he was very young Julien was always working with his father and grandfather and learned the same values of hard work with respect for nature. Fifteen years ago Julien started to grow babyleaves because Maroc and Israel had hold of the market for fine herbs. He still keeps searching for new products to take to the market, he likes to innovate. This year the mini mesclun is their new product and we believe it’s amazing and needs to be discovered.”

They are always being copied and Julien complains about it sometimes, but I answer to him that he is copied because he is the best of all producers.  He works very hard and cares so much about serving perfect salads. Julien added, “We want our client to never be disappointed.”

After seeing how they operate, I can only confirm the above. A visit to the fields showed they are working with nature, no pesticides or chemicals, and the product is at one with the beautiful, loamy soil. It takes a maximum of 26 days to grow, so it’s ready to harvest before the weeds! The harvesting process is amazing: a tractor-less trailer moves down the furrows and literally sweeps up the crop. As it reaches the top of the conveyor belt it is placed in one swift movement into the one kilo wooden trays.

Back at the farm it is hydro cooled in three to four degree water and then secured in the tray with a wrapper. The key here is that nothing is manhandled and therefore no bruising occurs and the freshness is maintained during packing.

The trip has revealed to me the importance of  ‘le terroir’ and in doing so we have discovered some more truly wonderful ‘perfect ingredients’. Martin Wishart commented, “The one thing that stood out for me was the passion of the farmer for their produce. It was great to be surrounded by like minded passionate people from the chefs, the growers and the suppliers”.

Graham added, “Thanks to Wellocks it’s possible for us all to work with these ingredients. So take a some time away from the stove and get out there and visit a producer or farmer – it might inspire you more than you think!”

Farming in Brittany

Back in 1961, a farmer in Brittany had become disillusioned about getting a fair price for his produce, so he proposed a cooperative. Now there are 2,500 farmers working together and producing 550,000 tonnes of fresh produce each year. To make this all work they are split into separate businesses so they have marketing, seed development, quality control, packing stations, an auction system and companies who sell the products worldwide.

The board that controls all of this is made up of 25 farmers. To give an idea of how forward thinking the original board was, they built ports in Roscoff and St Malo, hoping the ferries would come and then there would be a way to get the produce to the markets. They didn’t – so they bought their own ferries. Brittany Ferries was born, which is still owned and run by the cooperative.

“My recent visit to Brittany with James was a real insight into how small French farms work together under a regional Corporate organisation. The Co-op supports each farm member regardless of size.” – Martin Wishart

“Visiting the farms gave me an insight into the amount of hard work and passion that the people put into their work and made me respect the produce even more so than I already previously have done” – Graham Cheevers

May 2013