Good Cheese Magazine: Land of the Rising Raclette?

The Geography of Cheese was honored with a place on this year’s cover of “Good Cheese”, the annual magazine published by the UK-based Guild of Fine Food in conjunction with the World Cheese Awards. This year’s competition was in Bergen, Norway from November 1st-3rd, where 235 international judges chose 1 winner from over 3000 cheeses.

While Japanese cheeses weren’t entered in the competition, there’s a growing understanding that good cheese doesn’t have to come from countries with centuries of cheesemaking traditions. In fact, Japan is proving quite the opposite.

Keep an eye on the rising sun that is Japanese cheese. For now, excuse us while we go celebrate with overflowing sake cups and sakura-blossom crowned cheeses!

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Autumn's Answer: Jyukushi Kaki (Ripe Persimmon)

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Autumn is by far my most favorite time of the year. Everything slows down a little. The frenzy of the summer is over. The air conditioning is turned off and the windows are thrown open. As we enjoy the cool breezes, the trees start their end of year dance. Juicy green apples appear on the fruit stands, deep red Japanese maples glow in the gardens, and bright yellow gingkos line up along the boulevards of Tokyo radiating like street lamps. 

Just as the trees turn to fire and their leaves litter the ground, Mirasaka Fromage ships out its most beautiful cheese — Jyukushi Kaki — a washed-rind cheese made in the shape of a persimmon. It even has a little persimmon leaf hat and blanket to keep it warm, too! It’s a stunning cheese that evokes all the beauty of autumn.

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There are so many parallels between cheese and autumn. In truth, they're both appreciated forms of decay and degradation. The cheese will not be worth eating for much longer, and autumn will descend into winter once the trees lose their leaves. We must enjoy them now or risk the bitter regret of knowing we didn’t take advantage while we could. So let’s eat up and then take a stroll through the park!

My first cut into Jyukushi Kaki was painful because it felt like cutting into artwork. This feeling quickly dissolved into delight as I saw the cream line melt out onto my knife. It was salty, with warm butter and thick cream, but still light with an airy paste. As delicious as it was, I was mostly eating with my eyes and soaking up the beauty of a well-crafted cheese.

Mirasaka Fromage will be getting an early reservation every year from me. Jyukushi Kaki is made every year in limited numbers and flies off every shelf it actually makes it to. I had mine delivered to my home directly. No middleman for such a precious piece of cargo. 


Check out Mirasaka Fromage and Jyukushi Kaki's Profiles here:

Cheese Day 11/11/2017: My Reflections on Processed Cheese

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"Processed cheese feeds the masses."
When one of the most prominent figures in the cheese world said that to me in September, I realized I had never considered that perspective. Instead, I demonized processed cheese. I would even cringe internally at the thought of plastic wrapped cheese slices, lifeless yellow blocks, and their lack of beneficial microbes. Once I fell in love with artisanal cheeses, with the farmers who toil and the animals who give us their milk, I shunned all processed cheese as ignorance of the real thing.

I want to blame such a compunction to vilify the things I don’t agree with on the American Christian culture I was raised amongst. (Again, demonizing, I know.) Everything was always black and white, good or evil, yes or no. I realized I had fallen into that same sense of judgement. In the same way I feel that that understanding is misguided, I started to accept that processed cheese is not evil. In fact, it might actually be necessary. 

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And so, on 11/11, Japan’s National Cheese Day, I found myself standing in a very long line headed into the annual "Cheese Festa” held in Ebisu. The yearly event is organized by the Japanese Cheese Importer Association to promote import cheeses and some domestic ones. I attended last year and recognized again that this event was where my drive to start The Geography of Cheese sprang forth. 

Almost every cheese represented was incredibly processed. Cream cheese from the United States, Gouda from Holland, Feta from Greece, and Camembert from France. There were cheeses imported from countries all around the world, but they were the industrial versions, shrink-wrapped in plastic with no PDO in sight. There were lines out the door with crowd control.  So many Japanese wanted to try, buy, and learn about integrating cheese into their daily lives. That’s why they came! Why was I such a buzz kill?

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With consideration for the sheer number of Japanese people in attendance, I understood the importance of processed cheese in Japan. It is the first step, the introduction of any cheese into an individual's Japanese diet. Processed cheeses are more accessible with their cheap prices and milder flavors. It is an easy place to start because grocery stores are filled with these options. Once they’ve learned a little, then hopefully they will explore the depths of what cheese can be. 

The thing I did love at “Cheese Festa" were the booklets about incorporating cheese into Japanese cuisine. The recipes were developed by Japanese chefs and are just the kind of experiment I’d love to delve into myself. Even though they consistently promoted processed cheeses because of their superior melting characteristics, intriguing flavor combinations were suggested that I’d never consider on my own.  

I spent the day building new levels of understanding and holding back judgement. And still, I went back to my tiny little refrigerator in my small Tokyo apartment and practically hugged the small collection of artisan cheeses I always have waiting for me. The masses can have the processed cheese. I want the good stuff. 

Apéro: Bright and French with Japanese Cheese

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When I have the opportunity to spend an afternoon by myself, it usually involves a glass of wine and a cheese plate. That is how I found myself one Saturday afternoon, enjoying a conversation in a mix of Japanese, French, and English, sitting at the bar of a lovely restaurant called Apéro in Minami Aoyama. 

At Apéro, I always enjoy the expertly selected biodynamic French wines, lively decor, and ingredients scavenged with a higher level of consciousness. Every single item on the menu, shared with guests on an iPad, includes numerous wine pairing recommendations from their collection. Visit regularly for events featuring local Japanese producers, artists, or guest wines from France. On Sundays, Apéro fills up for their multi-course brunch with an option for free-flowing champagne (don’t have to say that twice). Families, couples, and groups of friends delight in a slow morning ritual and a good conversation.

But really, The Geography of Cheese looks at one special part of the menu - the cheese plate. 

Co-owner Guillaume Déperier answered a few of my questions about their cheese plate and made me an even more devoted fan of Apéro and everything they stand for. Check out their profile on The Geography of Cheese here and read the interview below. Once you do, I’m sure you’ll discover a few hours open for a Sunday champagne brunch or an evening aperitif at Apéro. You’ll probably find me there with a glass of wine, slowly contemplating some cheese.


INTERVIEW WITH GUILLAUME DUPÉRIER

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You have a cheese plate on the menu at Apéro, how do you choose your cheeses?

In order of importance, we choose our cheeses based on these factors:

  • organic
  • possible wine pairings
  • different varieties
  • regions of Southern France, such as the Savoie where I (Déperier) am from
  • Price
  • New discoveries

Do you change the cheeses regularly? By season or with a pattern?

We always try to have an array of cheeses including Comté, truffle gouda, Roquefort, and goat or sheep cheeses. Seasonally, we will include Mont d’Or or Beaufort from France or domestic cheeses like Sakura from Kyodogakusha. 

Is the cheese plate a popular choice at Apéro? More with the Japanese or foreigners?

The cheese plate is in the top 4 for sales at Apéro and is equally popular with Japanese guests as with foreigners. 

Where do you get your cheeses? Imports, stores, cheesemakers, etc.

We purchase our cheeses in 2 different ways, working with Via the Bio, an importer of organic European cheeses. Via the Bio is a great company that is willing to work with us to find cheeses we are interested in like the truffle gouda that they don’t usual import. For many domestic cheeses, we communicate directly with Japanese producers like Kyodogakusha in Hokkaido.

What is your impression of Japanese cheese?

I am very impressed by cheesemakers like Miyajima-san from Kyodogakusha, because he makes many different types of cheeses that are all high quality. While in France, we tend to specialize in one of two types of cheeses at each farm.

Do you know many Japanese cheeses? Do you like any in particular?

I particularly love Sakagura, a soft washed-rind cow’s milk cheese washed with Japanese sake from the Tokachi region. It looks like Alsatian Munster and is very rare, with only 8000 wheels produced each year. It is also served on the Japan Airlines First Class cheese plate. Many of our customers ask for it when they come to Apéro.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about cheese at Apéro?

We also make an effort to regularly offer cheeses from my region in France—Beaufort, Abundance, Saint Marcellin, Mont d’Or, Saint Félicien, Reblochon, Chevrotin des Aravis, as opposed to Brie, Camembert de Normandie, etc. The Japanese are less used to eating cheeses from the south of France and Apéro’s cheese plate is a great opportunity to introduce them to guests.


Check out more information on Apéro at the link below.

11th ALL JAPAN Natural Cheese Contest

Imagine a Japanese game show. There are bright lights, eccentric personalities, and an eager audience. As a foreigner, you’re not sure whether to laugh or marvel at how differently they just do things in Japan. The ALL JAPAN Cheese Awards wasn't exactly like a Japanese game show. But I still can’t figure out if I was caught off guard or mesmerized.

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In Japan, there are two separate cheese judging competitions each held biannually. The younger of the two is the Japan Cheese Awards, which just started in 2014 after laws protecting the names of cheese and dairy products in Japan were adopted in 2012. Held on even years and organized by the non-profit Cheese Professional Association, the Japan Cheese Awards provides an evaluation of domestic cheeses by cheese professionals working in the industry. 

It was an important opportunity to feel out another side of the Japanese cheese culture, to understand who is participating. 

On odd years, the ALL JAPAN Natural Cheese Contest invites intellectuals from the greater public to judge. The Japan Dairy Council organizes the biannual event and works with governmental bodies such as the Ministry of Agriculture to expand the demand for domestic cheeses and dairy products. These two events come from different angles but both strive to popularize domestic cheeses by showcasing their quality and craftsmanship. At both contests, cheesemakers can submit up to 3 cheeses each for judging. Last Wednesday, I attended the 11th ALL JAPAN Natural Cheese Contest in Tokyo. There were 161 cheeses from 73 cheesemakers submitted for judging. (In the end, I think I tasted 155 cheeses. The last 6 wouldn’t fit.)

This was my first Japanese cheese contest. I was excited to be surrounded by cheesemakers, professionals, and shop owners. It was an important opportunity to feel out another side of the Japanese cheese culture, to understand who is participating. While there were many moments where I didn’t understand the rapid-fire cheese lingo with long strings of keigo (formal Japanese), the experience was extremely educative. As an invitee, I attended a panel discussion with cheesemakers and the Minister of Agriculture, the final judging and awards ceremony, and the cheese tasting event on November 1st. 

Many things took me by surprise at the 11th ALL JAPAN Natural Cheese Contest. Here are 3 of things that shocked, awed, and delighted me. (in that order)

 

The final judging of 9 cheeses was on stage. 
To start, the final judges were introduced like rockstars. Each was followed on stage by a spotlight and music. There were 8 men and 1 women, each with dignified positions in society. I read “Final Judging” on the information booklet, but didn’t take it literally before this moment. The spotlight, music, and walk-on of each judge were unexpected. I wasn’t sure what the pomp and circumstance meant. Were they actually judging the final 9 cheeses in front of an audience of cheesemakers and cheese professionals?

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This was the Japanese game show I was taken aback by. While this may seem like a segway to criticism, I assure you that it’s not. It’s a jaw-dropping emotion I feel somewhat regularly in Japan. I was flummoxed by the fact that they were doing this publicly. Wasn’t everyone else’s stomachs in knots like mine? 

Each of the 9 judges presented one of the final cheeses that were awarded the best of each category. The tenth person was an eccentric character dressed in a white lab coat with a bow tie. It was his job to show the cheese around the stage to the audience, like an older, Japanese grandpa version of Vanna White. At the end of each cheese’s presentation and walk around the stage, the judges tasted and raised paddles with numbers. These were tallied and the final verdict decided. Whispers and murmurs rose in the crowd as the next cheese was brought out to go through its own showcasing. I sat there opening and closing my mouth like a fish out of water. 

For each of the 3 final awards, they created a sense of anticipation. 
After the final judging finished and a quick break, they announced the winners of the 4 awards. A beautiful young announcer slowly read out the year, event name, and award name in full drama as the lights dimmed and everyone grew silent. Then suddenly the slide on the large projector changed and the winner’s name and cheese appeared. Across the room reverberated a collective sound of amazement, followed with rapid applause. No cheering, they don’t cheer in Japan unless it’s in unison. 

Without further ado, here are the award winners of the 11th ALL JAPAN Cheese Contest.

Minister of Forest and Fisheries Award
        Bamboo Charcoal Richly Aged
        Fromage Sen, Chiba Prefecture http://fromage-sen.com

President of Agricultural and Livestock Industry Promotion Organization Award
        Niseko Momiji
        Niseko Cheese Factory, Hokkaido http://www.niseko-cheese.co.jp

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Central Dairy Conference Chairman's Award
        Japan Blue Okoppe
        Fermier Tomita, Hokkaido
       http://www.tomita-farm.jp 

Jury Special Award
        Kohaku Cumin
        TAK, Fukuoka Prefecture  
        https://www.itoshima-cheese-tak.com

Link to this year's winners at the Japan Dairy Council Website: http://www.dairy.co.jp/news/cheesecontes/index.html
 

Cheese and wine waiting outside
Like any good cheese contest, all of us who sat there watching people taste and judge cheeses were released to go taste cheeses afterwards. The winners had long, well-formed lines in front of their tables. For me, this was the best opportunity I’ve had to meet cheesemakers from all across Japan. I collected a suitcase-fillable number of brochures, ate an ungodly amount of cheese, sipped some delicious Japanese wine, and was on my way into the crisp Tokyo evening.