Look at that." "They're exquisite." It's 4am and eight chefs are huddled around a crate of walnuts. It soon becomes obvious what the fuss is about. Eight punnets are packed into the crate, and in each is 150g of picture-perfect shelled walnuts; not one chipped or fragmented. "Wow," chimes Aiden Byrne, chef-patron of the Church Green in Lymm, Cheshire. "Look how many there are. To get them all out like that is amazing." But then again, if you were to find such a box anywhere, it'd be here, at Paris's Rungis market.
We're at the famous Paris landmark, not just to stare at walnuts, but as part of a wider educational mission. The trip has been organised by supplier Wellocks, in collaboration with visionarydining.com, with the aim of taking the eight chefs (see panel) around Rungis market, plus a visit to chocolatier Michel Cluizel in a bid to find the perfect ingredient.
In the bitter chill of early morning, the walnuts have injected a burst of verve into the group. There had already been ripples of excitement from the fish market, the first port of call that morning. Box after box of shimmering seafood: shiny-eyed swordfish, 300lb yellowfin tuna, tanks of alien-like langouste (spiny lobster), and several hundred white jackets doing deals; eyes lit up from the start.
However, the fish market is merely a bit of window shopping, and the walnuts a crafty, unchoreographed spot from one of the chefs. Really, we're on our way to a tasting at one of Wellocks' favourite stalls - a specialist apple supplier.
Laid out in front of us are a dozen apples, ranging from bright red to a pale, insipid yellow, and a half-dozen pears. One by one, the supplier cuts segments from the fruit and hands them over, a slice at a time, to the chefs. The yellow and red Karmijn de Sonnaville? "Too tart," says Steve Smith, head chef at Devonshire Arms Country House Hotel in Bolton Abbey. The red, dappled Rubinette? "Too soft," says Wellocks' sales director James Barron. The crimson Fuji? "Better," says Rupert Rowley, head chef at Fischer's at Baslow Hall in Derbyshire. "The harder texture is more appealing."
We go through maybe half a dozen more - some, like the squat, brown Patte de Loup, impressing; others, such as the Reinette d'Armorique, not proving so popular - before the Belchard Chantecler comes out. "Lovely perfume, great texture, not too floury," says Steve Smith, and the consensus has it as a winner. A great apple; but the perfect ingredient? It's not even 7am yet.
On the way to the car park, Steve Smith picks up a small pineapple sitting on a fruit-stall display. "We only use these now," he explains to Dan Smith, head chef at the Peacock at Rowsley, Derbyshire. "The big ones are too fibrous. We tend to water-bath them, so all the juices stay in the vac pack, and when it cools it reabsorbs them."
Elsewhere, there's a lot of fuss being made over some white crosnes that one supplier has a monopoly on. "Every chef should come here once or twice a year, or even when the seasons change," says Michael Wignall, executive chef at Pennyhill Park in Bagshot, Surrey. "Not only to see the quality of the produce that's here and what's coming in, but to see how the French present it all with such care."
MICHEL CLUIZEL CHOCOLATE
By 9am we've covered the 80 miles to Damville, where the Michel Cluizel chocolate factory is located. One of the pre-eminent chocolatiers in France, Cluizel has been plying his trade since 1948. His parents owned a small pastry company in Damville, Normandy, and in 1947 branched out into producing chocolate in their small kitchen. The following year Cluizel started an apprenticeship with his parents and swiftly became an integral part of the business, moving it to larger premises near Damville in 1971, by which time it solely produced high-end chocolates, from cocoa bean to boxed product.
In 1987 the company opened a shop in Paris, called La Fontaine au Chocolat, which is still in operation today, and in 1997 the company produced its first single-estate chocolate, adding five more over the next decade. The factory in Damville has been expanded constantly over the past four decades and currently employs over 200 people, with all the chocolate still made and packaged, in the most part, by hand. As well as being sold to retail customers, the chocolate is a hit in kitchens across the globe.
Area export manager Clemence Tardif is charged with showing us the ropes, and it's quite a spectacle. The factory is a mix of vintage and new equipment, manned by pink-uniformed workers plying polished trades among the smell of roasting nuts and melted chocolate.
The chocolate tasting is the main event, with the company's single-estate selection stealing the show. Sourced from individual cocoa bean estates around the world, each chocolate has its own distinct flavour profile. The 66% Venezuelan displays hints of vanilla, giving way to dark fruits; the 67% Saint Domingue of olives, apricots and even liquorice, and the stunning 64% Papua New Guinea chocolate of banana, redcurrants and even a hint of tobacco leaf. Steve Smith, who admits to being blown away by the chocolate, has since started using them in his Michelin-starred restaurant at the Devonshire Arms Hotel. "I was amazed at the time how clean and multi-dimensional the flavour was," he says. "The chocolate has added so much to our menu. In fact, it's the closest we came to a perfect ingredient http://www.wellocks.com" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">when in Paris]."
"The chocolate is new in so many ways chefs should embrace," says Cartwright. "Traditionally chocolate flavour strength has been associated with its density in recipes. This chocolate delivers the flavour in abundance but leaves the palate clear every time. For diners this means bags of chocolatey flavour without the smothering richness. In a world of technology this chocolate is made by hand - I mean someone's hand actually mixing ingredients. It was incredible to watch how the skill of eye and hand created such a stunning finished product."
DAM MASSE FOIE GRAS
The final item on our itinerary is a tasting at Dam Masse foie gras shop, precipitating another early rise the next morning to catch the meat and poultry markets. Rows of feathered game, suckling pigs, duck fillets, and even a brass band from the warehouse balcony is a lot to handle at 5am, but not as much as the tongues, tripe and severed heads of the offal market; through whose blooded hallways we come to the glorious Dam Masse shop. With its rows of truffles, foie gras, saffron, caviar and Serrano hams, a supermarket sweep of the shelves would be enough to put you two rungs up the property ladder.
Our aim is to compare the company's frozen foie gras with four types of fresh. A foie gras liver, it is explained to us, will start to break down as soon as it leaves the bird. To get it in optimum condition, it needs to be eaten within 72 hours. We try varying ages of fresh foie gras, from a lobe removed from the bird the previous afternoon, to one removed two days before that. Predictably, the quality deteriorated the longer the lobe had been sitting around. The 12-hour-old liver proved the stuff of foie gras dreams - as smooth and creamy as one could possibly hope for. However, even the swiftest courier would struggle to get foie gras from France to a UK restaurant kitchen in 12 hours. Then there's the delay a chef might experience selling it on a dish. A possible solution? Cryogenically frozen foie gras. Portioned and frozen at the point of removal, it is then packaged up and sent out. The taste compares alongside the slightly older fresh foie gras, but impressed the chefs - some of whom use a similar product already - with its taste and texture. "The purity of the flavour is still very strong," reflects Steve Smith. "You might expect a lot of fat loss when cooking it but it doesn't seem to break down."
ALL IN AGREEMENT
Perfection: did we find it? We certainly got near it with Michel Cluizel's single-estate chocolates, the Belchard Chantecler apple, that 12-hour-old foie gras. Others, like the frozen foie gras, were perfectly convenient, without excessive compromise.
But perfection, it could be argued, means not wanting for anything more. And as those chefs gathered round and stared at the punnets of exquisitely extracted walnuts, few would argue that they'd found the perfect box of them.
With all the choreographing of the two days, from market to chocolatier to foie gras shop, it came from one lucky spot while strolling past. Without your eyes open, perfection will pass you by; even in Rungis market.
The food market known as Les Halles de Paris was first created in 1110 in what is now the 2nd arrondissement of Paris, where it stayed for over eight centuries until it moved to its current site. In 1962 it was announced that the market would move to Rungis and work began on the site in February 1964. But it officially opened in March 1969 with one fresh fish pavilion, nine fruit and vegetable pavilions, four pavilions for butter, eggs and delicatessen products, and one pavilion for fresh cut flowers. A meat market did not open at Rungis until 1973 (prior to that, meat products were sold at the abattoirs at La Vilette).
Today, Rungis hosts 1,199 companies and covers 232 hectares. In 2008 the market had a turnover of â¬7,767m and said that 56% of its produce was fruit and vegetables, meat represented 21%, 11% was seafood and freshwater produce, 7% was delicatessen products and 5% was dairy products.
Gordon Cartwright comments: "We have on our doorstep the world's finest food market in respect of quality and range. It's inspiring to chefs. You could see them rewriting their menus as they walked among the produce.
"Too much has been made of the term ‘local'. The world is 25,000 miles around its waist. The climatic and seasonal impact in our neck of the woods, over just a few hundred miles, makes Paris a viable market place for UK chefs to buy some of their goods. Equally, it would be great to see more UK produce at Rungis. We have some stunning produce in the UK that would boost trade to UK farmers, give the French a run for their money, and inspire their chefs. Think quality, not necessarily geography."
Cartwright adds that some people might query the green credentials when buying from France. "However, a lorry loaded with 100 lamb carcasses coming back from Paris will have a lower CO2 footprint travelling 200 miles than your local gas-guzzling tractor carrying three carcasses for five miles," he says.
"In 2011 I'll be taking chefs all round the world in search of quality. We can't become insular in the UK. In the same way a chef needs to eat out to self-develop, leading UK chefs need to explore global standards to make sure the UK maintains a vibrant, progressive and skilled industry."
Jonny Barron, sales director, Wellocks
Steve Bennett, Llansantffraed Court, Abergavenny
Aiden Byrne, the Church Green at Lymm, Cheshire
Gordon Cartwright, director, Visionarydining.com
Steve Darvill, the Swan at Newby Bridge, Cumbria
Rupert Rowley, Fischer's at Baslow Hall, Derbyshire
Dan Smith, the Peacock at Rowsley, Derbyshire
Steve Smith, the Burlington Restaurant, the Devonshire Arms, Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire
James Wellock, managing director, Wellocks
Michael Wignall, Latymers at Pennyhill Park, Bagshot, Surrey
[Visionarydining.com ](http://www.visionarydining.com)Run by former AA inspector Gordon Cartwright, Visionarydining.com is a restaurant consultancy, cookery school and resource for chefs from Michelin-star standard to aspiring youngsters.
[Wellocks Based in Lancashire, Wellocks has supplied to the restaurant, pub and hotel trade since 1995, and works with such establishments as the Star Inn in Harome, the Devonshire Arms in Bolton Abbey, the Box Tree at Ilkley and the Yorke Arms in Ramsgill.