Selectionnez une rubrique, un article ou un numéro du GUIDO
Brittany is only a step away from Essaouira: traditions are maintained in both Souiri and Breton canneries…
A confectioner from Nantes was the first to put the sardine in a tin as a preserve; but where tins started to invade supermarkets’ shelves, a family company from Quiberon resisted the trend and protected the cottage industry where everything was done by hand.
“La Belle Iloise” was founded in 1932 when, from Essaouira in Morocco to Douarnenez at the far end of Brittany, the economy in the ports of the Atlantic was grounded in the silver fish which fills holds and sailors’ pockets. It is the last company today, along with the discreet “Quiberonnaise” to perpetuate the tradition of the sardine tinned exclusively fresh and by hand. “This is what separates us from our competitors”, Caroline Hilliet Le Branchu sums up; she is the founder Georges’ grand-daughter and Head of the firm since January 2011.
The metal tins have kept their Belle Époque outdated look, with a falsely naïve and brightly coloured design, a bit like the posters advertising the charms of the Riviera before 1914. But like in her grand-father’s time, it is always the fish that comes first.
The sardine is fished all year round here but it is only between mid-May/mid-June and in November that it can be processed: it is a question of fat and size, the boss explains, before the fat rate starts decreasing and the taste with it.
During the season the production lines are in full operation: “The sardine that comes is gutted the same day and tinned the following day” she swears. It is the company’s secret whereas the competitors work seventy per cent of the time with a pre- frozen product. The fish comes in brine; it is gutted, washed, dried and fried in sunflower oil. Then it is left to drain for about twelve hours at a temperature of 12°.The day after, it is tinned by hand and seasoned: depending on the years, 4 to 8 sardines can be put head to tail per tin but this year it was between 5 to 6 ; “mold 28, the ideal one” says the expert. The ”mould” refers to the size: 28 means 28 sardines per kilo. This changes from one year to the next without any known reason: the sardine keeping the little secrets of its up and down growth.
Before that, the cooking stage is the “most delicate”: each new batch is tasted so that the temperature and the time of cooking can be adjusted. Some years the fish has to be looked for in the Mediterranean beside the Italian coast or off the coast of Portugal, at the worst at a day’s journey in a truck. But it always ends up in Brittany: “Fishermen say that there are true walls of sardines in the Atlantic but they only take what they can sell”. Bernard Hillier, who was the second director of the Belle Iloise before handing it over to his daughter, has kept his respect for the marine world where a handshake and a given word take the place of a written contract. “The day before, we decided on the quantities and even if we had a problem with our production lines, we took this quantity anyway. The fisherman was true to his word and would not supply our competitors”.
Ever since the “Etablissements Georges Hillier” dating from the grand-father, the two ancestral recipes of the founder as well as the original design have kept their place on the shelves: sardines in olive oil (the red Saint George sardine) or in groundnut oil (the yellow Belle Iloise). But as early as the sixties, the founder diversified his products by adding tomatoes, lemons from Menton, chili, garlic or olives. “In order not to depend on one species only, we added tuna fish in 1985 and mackerel in the year 2000” Bernard Hillier adds. Like his father, a whole sale fish merchant who set up his cannery at 22, he jealously preserved the legacy and most of all his independence. Georges resisted the pressure of supermarkets, swearing that, if need be, he would sell his sardines directly on the beach and he refused any shareholders. The Belle Iloise, employing up to 350 people in high season, is still selling its sardines in its own network of shops beside the sea (except one which opened in Paris last month) or by post.
This same tradition can be found in the remaining canneries of Essaouira, a lasting tradition even though the way of selling is different as the product goes to the national trade or is exported to supermarkets.