Japanese Katsuobushi Straight from Brittany


©Makurazaki France Katsuobushi

While Concarneau, the small jewel in the heart of Finistère, might be better known across France for its bay, its fishing port and its fortifications, it is for a very different reason that its name rings a bell across the Japanese archipelago.

It is in this small town in Brittany that the Japanese Makurazaki plant, named after the city of the same name south of Kyushu, has set up one of its branches to produce dried bonito or katsuobushi, one of the primary ingredients of traditional Japanese cuisine. It is the only factory of its kind in France, and just the second in Europe.

But what is the use of developing a production unit in the heart of Brittany, rather than simply exporting? According to Gwenaël Perhirin, Director Makurazaki France, ‘In Japan, this kind of tuna has been made using the same technique since 1708, in a very rustic way. It is therefore less restrictive for them to create this infrastructure here than to bring their plants to European standards’.

Respecting Japanese traditions

The adventure began in the autumn of 2016, when the space was inaugurated following almost two years of work, during which the organisation of the factory was carefully considered and the product tested countless times, in order to produce katsuobushi worthy of the name.

‘It was the result of a real team effort’, recalls Gwenaël Perhirin. ‘Two craftsmen specialised in cutting and smoking-drying and another in woodchip smoking came until the summer of 2018 to train workers in production for 2-3 weeks every month and a half. The real challenge was to create katsuobushi according to the rules of Japanese art, while adapting to a modern context’.

A craft process

Today, the French Makurazaki plant employs six people and mainly produces arabushi katsuobushi: unfermented tuna fillets with a fermented surface following smoking and drying. The factory is now working on developing new products, still smoked and dried, based on sardines (iwashibushi), horse mackerel (ajibushi) and mackerel (sababushi), which they hope to market by 2020.

There is also a shipping line based in Concarneau, fishing skipjack tuna in the Indian Ocean according to very strict specifications. The fish, once caught and frozen, is then chartered to the Breton port before being cut into fillets and cooked. ‘Most of the operations such as cutting, topping or evisceration are done by hand, with a standardized Japanese knife’, says Perhirin.

Next are the stages of smoking with wood chips and drying, to give the fish its smoked taste. We know no more however; the Japanese manufacturing secrets are preciously guarded.

From Concarneau to the kitchens of the great chefs

The fish next makes its way into the hands of the greatest Breton or Parisian chefs, like Julien Lemarié, head of the Michelin starred restaurant Ima in Rennes. ‘We use it mainly to make our dashis (broth, ed). We cannot quite replicate the taste of Japanese recipes, especially because the bonito is not fermented. Instead it has a hint of Breton identity that we appreciate’, says the chef who spent five years in Japan and who is always seeking distil a little twist of foreign influences in his local cuisine. ‘It is important for us to work with local people, especially as they are very attentive, and listen to our feedback, striving to improve the quality of their product again and again’, continues Lemarié who currently serves the bonito infusion with konbu and galanga.

One of the greatest achievements for Gwenaël Perhirin and his team is surely that Makurazaki supplies Eiryo Kudo, the head of the Japanese Embassy in Paris, who served his katsuobushi during the new Japanese emperor’s visit to Paris. ‘It seems that he enjoyed his meal’, says Gwenaël Perhirin happily.

A twinning project between the city of Makurazaki and Concarneau is also planned; surely an unexpected success for Gwenael Perhirin and the Makurazaki factory team.

©Makurazaki France Katsuobushi

©Makurazaki France Katsuobushi

©Makurazaki France Katsuobushi

©Makurazaki France Katsuobushi