Noodle family having a ball

State of the art: Ball Noodles managing director Charlie Ball (left) and factory manager Andray Pincer

By Brendon Cant

Close your eyes, lick your lips... a busy noodle house in central Tokyo and an equally busy Japanese fusion restaurant in New York.

At the Tokyo restaurant, just above Shinjuku station, four Japanese businessmen are sharing flavoursome sashimi sliced from Southern Bluefin tuna farmed at Port Lincoln, South Australia. Over a few beers, perhaps made with Australian barley, they then enjoy "Mochi Mochi" - which is how they describe the ultra-smoothness of high quality udon noodles, in this case from WA.

Across the Atlantic, on an equally cold December day in trendy downtown Manhattan, four Wall Street bankers share a similar experience with their mixed sashimi platter and warming bowls of udon noodle soup, infused with western additives to customise the experience.

What all these diners share is their position at the top of a food chain that began with ASW-N noodle wheat back in the hot golden paddocks of WA"s wheatbelt and with tuna from the cold blue waters of SA.

And at the Australian end of the chain is a single farming/fishing family. It was started a bit over three decades ago by Donald Ball when he bought a "bush block" at Nyabing in WA"s Great Southern, living in a shed for the first years before moving into nearby Katanning, where the family"s now extensive farming operations are controlled by his son William.

Although the first pages of this family"s Australian history were written when some Balls rolled into WA"s deep south from Scotland, the success chapters began with Donald when he started tuna fishing at Albany in the late 1970s; armed with a gambler"s instinct, a hard-work ethic, a quota and prices of $1000 a tonne.

Prices for Southern Bluefin tuna from the Ball"s Port Lincoln fish farming operations, trading as DI Fishing, now fetch anything up to $35,000 a tonne, because it did not take Donald long to realise that by farming tuna, their weights could be doubled and returns increased exponentially.

DI Fishing Co Pty Ltd was established in November 1995 to farm delicate, highly sought-after Southern Bluefin tuna, which are ideal for value adding, given that all aspects of the fish - weight, growth and fat content - are controlled throughout the fattening operation.

The fish are generally caught around February each year, transferred into pens and fattened until harvesting, processed in DI"s own factory in Port Lincoln and then sold to Japanese and US markets.

The company employs trained Japanese staff on its boats and in its factories to maintain quality control.

According to Donald"s son Charlie, a director of parent company Coolbardie and managing director of Ball Noodles, strict adherence to quality and employing Japanese staff, which helped DI break into the competitive and lucrative Japanese fish market, are also key ingredients in his recipe for success in cracking the tough Japanese noodle market.

Established in July 2002, Ball Noodles is a privately held company, created through the union of Coolbardie in WA and TOHO Corporation in Osaka, Japan. TOHO, with a network of offices in Japan, the US and Korea, acts as the import and distribution agent for Ball Noodles.

Photo: State of the art: Ball Noodles managing director Charlie Ball (left) and factory manager Andray Pincer. Photo: Brendon Cant.

Ball Noodles specialises in manufacturing portion-controlled cooked, frozen udon and ramen noodles, and 100 percent certified organic udon noodles, for retail and food service sectors. All products are made to the highest quality at its $8 million state-of-the-art factory, located a few kilometres south of WA"s main export shipping port of Fremantle.

According to Charlie, the world"s best udon noodle wheat is grown in WA.

In 2005 Ball Noodles will use about 5000 tonnes of noodle wheat (all Cadoux, Arrino and Eradu), mostly sourced from four preferred growers near Northam, where Weston Milling processes the wheat to flour before delivering it in bulk to Ball Noodles.

"We buy when protein is at its best and this year shapes as a particularly good one," Charlie said. "Growers need to understand that Japanese treat noodles like we treat wine, so we have very exact specifications in the wheat we can use and we will not move outside those parameters."

Good noodles have good colour, texture, visual appearance (shiny), sharp edges (best noodles are concave) and elasticity (chewiness).

"We have no interest in the Calingiri variety simply because its colour is not appropriate. Its flour is very white and we want a more creamy coloured noodle," Charlie explained.

Ball Noodles is HACCP certified for food safety. Japanese staff look after quality assurance.

Traceability is the key, according to Charlie: "If we had so much as a hair in a noodle in Japan it"d be disastrous.

Currently, however, if customers ask about our wheat source, we can only take them back to the mill. If growers could supply complete records, it"d be a plus for Ball Noodles."

The company is interested in organic wheats and is keen to hear from certified organic growers, with 1500 tonnes a year likely to be required in the near future.

Its organic udon noodles are popular with retailers, restaurant owners and customers and are made with 100 percent certified organic Australian noodle wheat and natural salt harvested from the Outback.

The US noodle market, which comprises a little over one-third of Ball Noodles" sales, represents huge opportunities, according to Charlie, who has contemplated living there to better service and build the market.

"We compete with the Japanese and our quality is better and our production costs are less. This makes us very competitive. And, because we have Japanese and western staff, we are that much more flexible in what we produce."

Green tea udon noodles is one example of that flexibility.

"Green tea has health benefits and is almost a marketing tool in itself. Simply by manufacturing noodles with green tea, we can add considerable value and satisfy a market, particularly by western people in fusion type restaurants," Charlie said.

The company is also keen to see domestic sales turnover grow: "Although local sales now comprise only five percent, by turnover, hopefully as fusion restaurants become more popular, that will grow.

"The cooked, frozen, portion-controlled market is growing and that too will provide market pull-through."

For more information: Charlie Ball, 08 9336 6488, charlie@ballnoodles.com