A group of traditional “katsuobushi” dried bonito flake makers in Kyushu will set up a factory in France and start production next year, hoping to bring to Europe the the key ingredient for soup stock and dishes in Japanese cuisine.
Participating in a food exhibition in France in May 2013 inspired the group, based in Makurazaki, Kagoshima Prefecture, to plan out the launch of a factory in Concarneau, located in the Brittany region of northwestern France, said Yoshihiro Kominato of the Makurazaki Marine Products Processing Industries Cooperative.
The co-op, an umbrella organization of 10 bonito flake makers in Kagoshima and one distributor in nearby Fukuoka Prefecture, aims to complete construction of the factory in time for the food-themed world exposition that will open in Milan next May 1. The cooperative plans to exhibit the product at the event.
“Local visitors to the (2013) food exhibition seemed to like katsuobushi after they tasted it,” Kominato said.
But he added that participants in the event who traveled from Makurazaki to France last year for the trade show were displeased when they had miso soup at a Japanese restaurant in France that had not been made with bonito flake.
“This led us to do something about it, as we wanted locals to have real Japanese soup, which is incomplete without katsuobushi,” he said.
“The casual talk of that day resulted in establishing the plant because members of the Japan Food Industry Association, who were also present there, showed interest in extending their support,” Kominato said.
The Kagoshima organization formally announced its project last July. The Japan Food Industry Association, which promotes the Japanese food industry, in turn introduced the cooperative to the French government’s Invest-in-France Agency.
The Makurazaki makers were eventually put in touch with the Bretagne Commerce International (BCI), which provided them with local information and helped liaise with potential partners.
“Unlike typical foreign investor projects whose decision-making process is generally spread out over a two-year period, the decision to set up a plant was very quick and no doubt fueled by increased demand from now ripe European markets,” BCI Managing Director Vincent Chamaret said in a statement earlier this month.
Attributing the speed of the investment procedure to efforts by BCI, the Invest-in-France Agency also praised the “passion” of the Makurazaki cooperative for contributing equally to the quick decision-making.
Referring to the European Union’s strict food import rules, Kominato said: “To be able to export katsuobushi to EU countries, one has to clear all the rules from landing bonito to processing the fish according to the EU standards, which are quite difficult to fulfill.
“There’s high demand for the product in France, as the country has more than 1,000 Japanese restaurants.”
The registration of traditional Japanese cuisine as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO last December has heightened the popularity of Japanese food and boosted its demand all over the world, he said.
Makurazaki France Katsuobushi Co., which was established in April for the project, plans to employ six people and produce 200 kg a day at the bonito flake factory, with the aim of supplying the product to distributors and Japanese restaurants within the European Union.
The plant will process caught near Mauritius and the Seychelles, Kominato said, adding that one or two French employees will be trained in Kagoshima.
“We aim to use the product for soups or as toppings in French dishes, in addition to using it for Japanese cuisine,” he said. “We’re planning to exchange views with local chefs in the future to explore ways of its use in various dishes.”
Concarneau was chosen because, among other reasons, there was a cold storage warehouse near the potential plant site, a necessary requirement because bonito must be kept at low temperatures. The town also faces the Atlantic Ocean, easing shipment of raw materials, and there is a robust fishing industry in the area, according to the Invest-in-France Agency.
The Makurazaki cooperative already has katsuobushi production bases in Southeast Asia, including in Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, for export to Japan as well as consumption at local Japanese restaurants. At present, bonito flakes made in Vietnam are shipped to France.