La Belle Iloise
La Belle-Iloise are famous throughout France for preparing very high quality tinned sardines, tuna, mackerel as well as fish soups and lobster bisque. As we are starting to feature more of the La Belle Iloise range, we felt it may be interesting for you to discover a little about this company based in Quiberon, Brittany.
History Of Conserverie La Belle-Iloise
La Belle-Iloise was founded in 1932 in the town of Quiberon, a fishing port in Brittany on the West Coast of France, by Georges Hilliet.
Himself from a Family of fisherman, Georges Hilliet started tinning fish on a small scale. Porta Maria, the harbour in Quiberon was an ideal location for a fish cannery as the town specialised in sardine fishing, and hence he had access to abundant quantities of fresh sardines, no distribution (impossible in those days) and port prices.
The company operated on a fairly small scale until the mid 1960s.
The turning point for the Conserverie La Belle – Iloise which set it along the path we know today (high quality premium tinned fish on a fairly large scale) came in the 1960s. Mass distribution and the emergence of large supermarkets forced canneries throughout France to lower costs, which was achieved to some extent by compromising on quality and taking shortcuts.
This went against the values Georges Hillier wanted for his company and so he turned his back on volume accounts and famously said “I’ll take my basket and sell my sardines at the beach if it comes to that!”. It did not! Instead he chose to pursue quality and opened his first direct point of sales in Quiberon in 1967, within the cannery itself.
This would set up the future direction of the company which prioritised direct contact with customers and the development of a relatively dense network of shops selling La Belle Iloise range, especially on the Western flank of France – but this part of the companies history was developed more by his children and grandchildren as you will find out.
As part of the drive to establish itself as a premium brand in tinned fish, La Belle Iloise began developing the very colourful and attractive presentations it is now known for, as well as the elaboration of interesting and unusual recipes and flavour combinations, with the introduction in 1968 of Sardine Cream with Whisky, the first in it’s line of gourmet spreads.
La Belle Iloise – A Family Company
Georges had five children ( three sons and two daughters) and as was very common then in France (and even today), the children joined the Family business.
In 1972 (forty years after the Cannery was founded, which shows that brands are not built overnight!) two of his sons Georges Hilliet and Bernard Hilliet took over the company and opened a second store in Carnac, a tourist destination in Brittany.
This first step beyond the Quiberon Peninsula was the beginning of what would become a considerable development of stores along the Western Coasts of France. Backed up 10 years in later, in 1982, by the development of a mail order system due to demand for La Belle Iloise range throughout France! So looking back now in the era of the online world, they were visionaries!
The success of direct sales via it’s network of stores as well together with it’s mail order business transformed the companies organisation, essentially with a view to keeping this model, but scaling it. So in 1993, the Cannery relocated to a new, much larger and more modern factory (still located in Quiberon).
In 1996, Bernard Hilliet took the helm of La Belle Iloise and for the next decade and a half developed the the network of stores as we now know it. As of 2011, La Belle Iloise points of sale were present along the entire French coast, from Le Touquet in Northern France to Menton on the Cote d’Azur with now over 50 stores.
In 2011, after working for five years with her father, Caroline Hilliet Le Branchu took the helm of the family company and pursued the same course.
Despite it’s rapid expansion since the late 1990s (the company employs between 350 and 600 employees depending on the time of year), La Belle Iloise has remained a Family company and in this way has been able to develop whilst remaining loyal to its founding values.
La Belle Iloise Range – Quality And Creativity
As already mentioned, La Belle Iloise have always made quality their priority, with quite early on, the development of more unusual gourmet recipes and seasonings based around sardines, tuna and mackerel – as well as their soups. All this presented in colourful packaging!
One reason why the La Belle Iloise range is so good is because of the emphasis placed on sourcing and using top quality ingredients, from the best quality fresh fish (sardines, mackerel and tuna fillets) through to the seasonings used (using the best of French everywhere such as Menton lemons, Espelette pepper, Bayonne ham) and very important in tinned fish, oil, which is the second most important ingredient since it enables the fish to be preserved and release it’s full flavours.
Many of the production steps are still performed manually. Not out of nostalgia for old traditions, but because the company still feels that the best way to preserve the fragile fish is to perform many of the tasks by hand by highly experienced staff. It’s a meticulous task, from the cleaning of the fish, through to removing the backbone (for the boneless sardine range) to packing and preparing the seasoning for each recipe (cutting lemons, chopping basil). So in many ways, although on a much larger scale, the products are prepared in a similar way to the early days, with no shortcuts, and this is why the range is so good!
Throughout the production process, the Cannery performs regular quality controls and samples each batch by an internal tasting panel. This is a key step to guarantee quality in the appearance and taste of our products and leave nothing to chance.
The Good Food Network And La Belle Iloise
The Good Food Network have been stocking La Belle Iloise for just under a year at the time of writing this post (we started in Spring 2022). Our comments, thoughts and plans?
First of all we are very happy to stock this range and like everything about it! We knew La Belle Iloise products by name. We first tried them having discovered their Le Touquet store in March 2017, and have since regularly ordered them for ourselves.
Superb flavours with top quality flavours sums up this range for us.
For the time being, our range is a little more focused around La Belle Iloise soups (veritable soupe de poissons Brettone, bisque de homard, soupe de poissons de roche provencale, veloute de coquillage) as these have seemed most popular with our customers. Available both singly or in six packs at discounted prices.
Tinned fish is less well known in the UK, and hence harder to sell. But we really do believe in this range and intend to broaden their range of tinned fish, which we stock – for the time being you will all ready find La Belle Iloise maquereau au citron de menton, maquereau escartefigue, a la moutarde, et au vin blanc.