CONCARNEAU, France - They came all the way from Japan to France with a crazy idea: establishing a factory for authentic dried bonito flakes, a key ingredient in Japanese cuisine that is very rare in Europe.
Dried bonito fish, also known as katsuobushi, has a distinct umami flavour and is the main ingredient in dashi, a traditional stock which forms the basis of much of Japanese cuisine.
Considered essential for Japanese cooking, European chefs have been largely unable to find authentic bonito as it cannot be exported from Japan to Europe.
But now all that is set to change with Japanese cooperative Makurazaki opening its own production facility in Brittany, northwestern France, from which it hopes to supply connoisseurs across the continent.
"It was crucial to be passionate about this product and the aim of this project for it to see the light of day," said Gwenael Perhirin, director of Makurazaki France.
Makurazaki, which takes its name from a city in southern Japan that is famous for its katsuobushi industry, represents eight manufacturers of bonito flakes and other products derived from fish of the tuna family, a packaging company and a fishing cooperative.
Although bonito flakes can be found in specialised shops across the European Union, mostly coming from China, Korea or Vietnam, they can cost up to 130 euros (S$197) per kilogramme.
"It is not at all the same product (as the Japanese original) in terms of taste and smell," says Perhirin, sitting in the factory's rest area, slippers on his feet as Japanese tradition dictates.
With the United Nations' cultural body UNESCO recognising Japanese cuisine as part of the country's intangible cultural heritage, Makurazaki is hoping to make good on the growing wave of interest in Japan's culinary know-how.
Located in the seaside town of Concarneau, at the northern end of France's Atlantic coast, the factory, which covers an area of 800 square metres (8,600 square feet), was opened in early September.
Despite the fanfare, it is not the first katsuobushi production facility in Europe - another factory was set up last year in Vigo, a city on Spain's northwestern Atlantic coast.
Makurazaki has ploughed two million euros into the Concarneau plant after signing a deal with French tuna firm CFTO (Compagnie Francaise du Thon Oceanique) which is also based in Brittany.
Under the deal, CFTO will supply Makurazaki France with between three and six tonnes of bonito, also known as skipjack tuna, per week.
For now, the plant can turn a tonne of fish into 200 kilogrammes of katsuobushi, but the management is hoping to see volumes increase in the coming years.
CFTO, which is also based in Concarneau, runs a fleet of 14 vessels in the Atlantic and Indian oceans, where it catches the fish according to very strict regulations.
"We worked very hard to get this specification because we have to be very careful about its fat content," says Perhirin.
Fat content depends on both the available food and the temperature of the water, with those swimming at a greater depth having a higher proportion of fat as insulation from the cold.
Once caught, the fish is frozen on board, then brought back to port where it is defrosted and cut down into filets according to a 300-year-old tradition.
It is then cooked and smoke-dried before being matured in a process involving mould, and finally shredded. The packaging process is also very strict as the product must not be exposed to moisture and deteriorates very quickly when it comes in contact with the air.
Most of the operations, from removing the head and the entrails, to butterflying the fish and removing the bones, are carried out by five locally hired workers who have been trained by two Japanese experts from Makurazaki, who also remain on site.
"The quality of our finished product is much closer to what we produce in Japan," says Atsushi Kawazoe, one of the two experts, crouching on a tatami mat in the corner of the rest area.
"There is still progress to be made but we're nearly there," he says.
Makurazaki is hoping to initially supply high-end Japanese restaurants before trying to introduce the product to French chefs, and eventually extending its reach into other European countries.
"Even the Emperor of Japan knows about us because it's a bit of a crazy project," says Perhirin, pointing out that for the Japanese, the Emperor is an almost God-like figure.