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.

That​ ​level​ ​of​ ​care​ ​continues​ ​in​ ​the​ ​packhouses.​ ​At​ ​Stanor​ ​Packhouse,​ ​apples​ ​arrive​ ​in huge​ ​one-ton​ ​bins​ ​onto​ ​a​ ​conveyor​ ​system​ ​which​ ​slowly​ ​releases​ ​the​ ​apples​ ​into​ ​the water​ ​for​ ​cleaning​ ​without​ ​bruising.​ ​The​ ​apples​ ​bob​ ​around​ ​in​ ​what​ ​looks​ ​like​ ​a​ ​huge​ ​log flume​ ​and​ ​are​ ​then​ ​x-rayed​ ​27​ ​times​ ​for​ ​defects.​ ​Defective​ ​apples​ ​are​ ​sent​ ​for​ ​juicing​ ​or to​ ​be​ ​sold​ ​as​ ​lower​ ​class​ ​products;​ ​perfect​ ​apples​ ​are​ ​dried​ ​and​ ​stored​ ​in​ ​huge high-tech​ ​oxygen​ ​fridges.

​​This​ ​process​ ​ensures​ ​that​ ​an​ ​apple​ ​picked​ ​in​ ​early​ ​September can​ ​still​ ​be​ ​eaten​ ​in​ ​March​ ​and​ ​taste​ ​amazing.​ ​The​ ​smell​ ​in​ ​this​ ​part​ ​of​ ​the​ ​packhouse was​ ​truly​ ​wonderful.

Sylvain​ ​took​ ​us​ ​to​ ​an​ ​orchard​ ​at​ ​Vendelhe​ ​and​ ​the​ ​Buratti​ ​Packhouse​ ​where​ ​we discovered​ ​the​ ​biggest​ ​crop​ ​of​ ​Chantecler​ ​apples.​ ​This​ ​orchard​ ​had​ ​suffered​ ​a​ ​huge frost​ ​earlier​ ​in​ ​the​ ​year​ ​which​ ​damaged​ ​the​ ​flowers​ ​on​ ​the​ ​trees​ ​-​ ​we​ ​could​ ​see​ ​the evidence​ ​in​ ​the​ ​fruit​ ​which​ ​bore​ ​a​ ​ring​ ​mark​ ​on​ ​the​ ​skin.​ ​The​ ​Chantecler​ ​apples​ ​-​ ​a Wellocks’​ ​favourite​ ​-​ ​were​ ​also​ ​harvested​ ​carefully​ ​by​ ​hand.​ ​We​ ​tried​ ​the​ ​Chantecler apple​ ​straight​ ​from​ ​the​ ​tree​ ​and​ ​were​ ​all​ ​blown​ ​away​ ​by​ ​the​ ​variety​ ​and​ ​excited​ ​to​ ​get some​ ​back​ ​to​ ​HQ​ ​to​ ​play​ ​with​ ​in​ ​the​ ​development​ ​kitchen.​

​The​ ​Chanticler​ ​is​ ​the​ ​Rolls Royce​ ​of​ ​apples​ ​and​ ​we​ ​just​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​eat​ ​one​ ​after​ ​another.​ ​They​ ​have​ ​a​ ​huge​ ​flavour profile,​ ​sweet,​ ​crunchy,​ ​juicy​ ​with​ ​a​ ​hint​ ​of​ ​acidity,​ ​and​ ​an​ ​exceptional​ ​texture​ ​that’s fantastic​ ​for​ ​baking,​ ​tarte​ ​tatins​ ​and​ ​many​ ​other​ ​dishes.

One​ ​highlight​ ​of​ ​our​ ​visit​ ​was​ ​taste​ ​testing​ ​the​ ​apples​ ​at​ ​Blue​ ​Whale’s​ ​HQ​ ​and​ ​two varieties​ ​just​ ​blew​ ​our​ ​chefs​ ​away.​ ​First​ ​was​ ​the​ ​Ariane,​ ​a​ ​sweet​ ​and​ ​slightly​ ​acidic,​ ​very crisp,​ ​crunchy​ ​and​ ​juicy​ ​apple.​ ​The​ ​second​ ​was​ ​the​ ​Blue​ ​Reine​ ​-​ ​very​ ​crisp​ ​and​ ​juicy with​ ​a​ ​perfumed​ ​taste.

Thanks​ ​to​ ​Blue​ ​Whale​ ​-​ ​and​ ​in​ ​particular​ ​our​ ​informative​ ​hosts​ ​Sylvain​ ​and​ ​​ ​sales executive​ ​Nathalie​ ​Portier​ ​-​ ​​ ​our​ ​search​ ​for​ ​the​ ​perfect​ ​apple​ ​was​ ​a​ ​huge​ ​success.​

​Our chefs​ ​also​ ​enjoyed​ ​a​ ​wonderful​ ​trip​ ​to​ ​Chateau​ ​de​ ​Mercues​ ​to​ ​discover​ ​the​ ​castle​ ​and winery.​ ​The​ ​castle​ ​was​ ​absolutely​ ​stunning​ ​and​ ​our​ ​thanks​ ​go​ ​to​ ​its​ ​general​ ​manager Yann​ ​Potet​ ​for​ ​the​ ​hospitality,​ ​the​ ​exclusive​ ​tour​ ​and​ ​the​ ​fabulous​ ​Malbec​ ​tasting​ ​and​ ​to chef​ ​Julien​ ​Poisot​ ​for​ ​our​ ​excellent​ ​lunch​ ​at​ ​the​ ​Chateau’s​ ​Michelin​ ​star​ ​restaurant.

We​ ​highly​ ​recommend​ ​a​ ​visit​ ​to​ ​the​ ​small​ ​village​ ​of​ ​Montauban​ ​where​ ​we​ ​stayed​ ​at​ ​the excellent​ ​Abbaye​ ​des​ ​Capucins​ ​hotel,​ ​and​ ​visits​ ​to​ ​the​ ​Bistrot​ ​Constant,​ ​the​ ​restaurant of​ ​Christian​ ​Constant​ ​-​ ​who​ ​has​ ​restaurants​ ​in​ ​Toulouse​ ​and​ ​Paris​ ​-​ ​and​ ​the​ ​charming Le​ ​Moulin​ ​de​ ​Moissac​ ​in​ ​a​ ​beautiful​ ​setting​ ​next​ ​to​ ​the​ ​river.