The hall of the Isetan Department Store was filled with people tasting international wine, cheese, breads, and meats to their hearts content. Wine from regions as famous as Burgundy and as obscure as Bulgaria. Cheese from France to Hokkaido. Pretzels and sausage with all the trappings of Bavaria. From February 22-27, the event “Vins et Voyages" toured the gastronomic regions of the world.
Several cheese counters were arranged around “Vins et Voyages”. One specialized in import cheeses from France, Italy, and Belgium. After trying a couple pieces, I inquired about Japanese cheese. The cheesemonger giggled and said, “like wasabi cheese?”. Then a man nearby contributed, “The quality of Japanese cheese is not high. They’re not like European cheeses.” A little stunned, I pulled my jaw up from the floor.
In the hall, the influence of imported foods in Japan was palpable. The country has become increasingly dependent on imports since World War II and the economic boom of the mid-20th century. Radical changes in eating habits and demand for Western foods has exacerbated the balance between domestic products and imports.
Like many countries when it comes to wine and cheese, Japan suffers from an inferiority complex. Imports are vital for expanding palettes and creating status symbols among certain kinds of foods. But many Japanese do not value their own domestic production, or even know its true quality. With a greater appreciation for cheese made in Japan, one sector of the import market could be balanced.
The Geography of Cheese launched just over a month ago. I have learned that amazing cheese is being made in Japan. What I did not expect to learn is that the Japanese know as little about their own cheese production as foreigners. To help amend this tragedy, The Geography of Cheese will be bi-lingual, in English and Japanese, starting in May.