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. 

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.


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?


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


Central Dairy Conference Chairman's Award
        Japan Blue Okoppe
        Fermier Tomita, Hokkaido

Jury Special Award
        Kohaku Cumin
        TAK, Fukuoka Prefecture  

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. 

Tokyo Beer Week's Pairing Event

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Pairings are always an experiment. We participate in them each day as we take our meals, presumably with something to drink other than water. Our taste buds assess the mingling flavors. Do they complement or detract? Is it balanced or layered? Do the flavors enhance or overshadow each other? 

マリアージュ (maria-ju) : a pairing, from the word “marriage” in English.

There are many considerations for a pairing, or “marriage” as it’s called in Japan.  Gentle nuances exist in craft beer, vintage port, wine, and sake that demand a deliberate study. Like cheese, the flavors in alcohol can vary batch to batch, bottle to bottle. Each time a new wheel of cheese is sliced or a cork popped, the flavors in the pairing might blend differently. Thus, it is imperative to listen to our taste buds and do the necessary research. But most importantly, we must enjoy.

One lovely Sunday afternoon, a group of eight specialists gathered, each with a different perspective. There was the Beer Sommelier couple, the wine specialist, the journalist, the photographer, the singer, and the cheese person. Our leaders were Masahiro Yamagami of the Japan Drink Association and Fabien Degoulet of Fermier Cheese Shops and winner of the 2015 Mondial du Fromage Competition. 

The event began with a welcome drink of Kronenbourg 1664 Blanc. Everyone took a seat around the table decorated with traditional cheese molds such as Crottin de Chavignol, Saint Maura de Touraine, and Valençay. On the bar above us, preparations were under way. Bottles were opened, and cheeses were brought to room temperature. We embarked on a journey through nine different pairings on a flavor curve from light and fruity to bitter and rich. 

Between generous pours and accompanying cheeses, we cleansed our palette with green tea and fresh cut baguette. Over two hours, we drank and ate with careful consideration, taking note of the flavors as they met on our tongues. The pièce de résistance was a vintage port older than myself. The bottle was opened with a traditional tool heated over an open flame and wrapped around the neck of the bottle. It created a clean break below what might’ve been a rotten cork. The afternoon felt particularly experimental then. 

Before sending us on our way, our hosts showered us with gifts of craft beer, French cheese, and Fermier totes. Our experiment was complete, bellies round with cheese, and heads floating in the sky from a few good drinks. We danced down the hill from Fermier’s Atago shop and scattered onto the streets of Tokyo. 

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My Tasting Notes: 

Coulomentine, France and Japan
St. Bernardus Witbier, Belgium 5.5.%

Coulomentine is a creation by Fabien. He mixes Japanese dried mikan oranges with Brilliat Savarin and layers it inside a wheel of Coulommiers. The result is a balance of creamy and light flavors with the bright bitterness of orange peels. Coulomentine pairs well with a Belgian Witbier. The smooth fruitiness of the beer balances the creaminess of the cheese. The bitterness in the orange peels is brings out flavors in both the beer and the cheese. It is a fantastic pairing for summer.

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Crottin de Chavignol, Dubois Boulay, France
Sur Simone, Single Hopped Sour Mashed Session IPA, Denmark 4.5%

For me, these flavors were not complementing as much as layering. The complexity of the beer was a little lost on the firm goat cheese round. The bitterness of the hops didn’t bring out the best side of the goat cheese. I would’ve paired the Sour IPA with a tangier goat cheese rather than a Loire Valley style. The cheese was aged wonderfully and the beer was delicious, but the “marriage” wasn’t my favorite. 

Comte 18 months, Marcel Petite, France Comte, France
Chardonnay, Mersault 2014, Jean Claude Boisset Burgundy, France

Another pairing that didn’t wow me. I could’ve sipped the chardonnay all afternoon, and Comte is one of my favorites. But this pairing didn’t balance well enough. Comte is a powerfully nutty cheese and it needs a wine that can stand up to it. After introducing a few walnuts to make a triangle tasting, the walnuts acted like a bridge on the tongue between Comte and the chardonnay.

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Mimolette Vielle 18 months, Flanders, France
Tenkabito Junmai-Daiginjo, Okayama Prefecture, Japan 15%

This first sake pairing was especially fun. We each picked our own sake cup from an eclectic collection. The sake was gently heated in a traditional bizen bottle. The pairing was surprising and wonderful. The oily, nuttiness of Mimolette contrasted well with the gentle warmed sake. All the flavors melted on the tongue and made it difficult not to ask for more.

Epoisses, Burgundy, France
Daruma Masamune 3 years, Gifu Prefecture, Japan 16%

With special regard to the cheese, this was a wonderfully aged Epoisses. It had the perfect bulging shape and no hint of ammonia. Served on a spoon, the richness in the Epoisses was balanced by the stickiness of the aged sake. The pairing was truly mouth-filling. The pungency of the cheese never left the nose as the taste buds were covered in sake. This sake would go well with any washed or bloomy rind cheese that tends towards rich and pungent flavors. 

Comte 18months, Marcel Petite, France Comte, France
Nine-Tailed Fox 2007, Nasu Kogen Beer, Tochigi 11% 

I was especially excited to taste this beer (which was really barley wine), having had little experience with aged and vintage beers. The beer was gentle, a little sweet, with nuanced flavors that were hard to pinpoint. For me, the bold flavors of the Comte completely overwhelmed the beer. 

Fourme d’Ambert
Chimay Blue 2016, Belgium 10.5%

This pairing is an easy one to like. The deep, woody, almost smokiness of the aged Chimay is a fantastic pairing with the blue, creamy, pungency of a slice of Fourme d’Ambert. I'll be coming back to this one in the future. 

Sbrinz, Switzerland
Lindt Swiss Chocolate 70%
Valente’s Double Espresso, Black Wolf Brewery, Scotland 6%

A double espresso beer and dark chocolate simply go well together. When three-somed with a slice of Sbrinz, a lighter, creamier Swiss mountain cheese, all the flavors are heightened. It’s a 3D flavor profile of bitter, sweet, and salty. It is undeniably delicious. My opinion was confirmed by lots of nodding and "yummy noises" around the table.

Stilton, UK
Vintage Port, Guimaraens 1986, Fonseca, Portugal 20.5%

A decanted vintage port is a great balancer to a powerful blue cheese like Stilton. The pairing brings out the fruitiness in the port, mingling mold and grape, with long sour notes on the tongue. The bitterness in both of them was almost cancelled out, leaving creamy and fruity flavors to enjoy.  

Japanese Cheese at Fromagerie Alpage

On a spring day, Kagurazaka is one of Tokyo’s loveliest neighborhoods to wander around. It is full of European-inspired bistros, trattorias, and beer gardens. Within a single block, you can walk out of one shop with a delicious baguette, another with a bottle of Chianti Classico, and down one small alley sits Fromagerie Alpage with the good cheese. 

Fromagerie Alpage Storefront
Japanese cheese tasting with Hokkaido wine
Menu of Japanese cheese

This past weekend, Fromagerie Alpage hosted its regular Cheese Cafe, fixing cheese platters and serving drinks all made in Japan. The cheese platters came with a choice of 3 or 5 cheeses from an impressive selection of 22 cheeses from all across the country. Pairings were suggested with domestic sparkling, white, red, sake, or green tea. The recommendations were right on point.  One sumptuous cream line of a goat cheese paired with green tea somehow tasted like green tea ice cream! To round off guests' hunger, Fromagerie Alpage served potatoes smothered in raclette cheese from Tokachi, Hokkaido made using onsen (hot spring) water.  

Check out the flyer (in Japanese) and the translations of names included below. Some can already be found on The Geography of Cheese, and all the rest will surely come soon. 

1. Ricotta, Il Riccottaro, Okayama
2. Tomino, Il Riccottaro, Okayama
3. Mozzarella, Rakukeisha, Hokkaido
4. Nachi, Uraken Yufuin Cheese Workshop, Oita
5. Nasuno, Ima Farm, Tochigi
6. Tamari bathed cheese sticks, Amatani Cheese Workshop, Tochigi
7. Fromage Blanc (with seasonal fruit), Mirasaka Cheese Workshop, Hiroshima
8. Chausudake, Ima Farm, Tochigi
9. Tenrai Chèvre, Bosukeso, Nagano
10. Mimaki, Kimoto, Bosukeso, Nagano
11. Robiola, Rakukeisha, Hokkaido
12. Shinonome, Ima Farm, Tochigi
13. Fuuro, Yokoi Farm, Hokkaido
14. Maru Wash, Atelier de Fromage, Nagano
15. Blue Cheese, Atelier de Fromage, Nagano
16. Tomosu Blue, Amatani Cheese Workshop, Tochigi
17. Pepper Gouda, Nagato Farm, Nagano
18. Niseko Mimolette Momiji (aged 12 months), Niseko Cheese Workshop, Hokkaido
19. Kohaku, Itoshima Natural Cheese Manufacturer, Fukuoka
20. Anepetsu, Yokoi Farm, Hokkaido
21. Gold Label, Tsurui Cheese, Hokkaido
22. Shintoko, Kyodogakusha, Hokkaido

Imports, Wasabi Cheese & a Bilingual Goal

Photo credit: Isetanguide.com

Photo credit: Isetanguide.com

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. 

Photo credit: Isetanguide.com

Photo credit: Isetanguide.com

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. 

Two interesting articles from the Japan Times about food self-sufficiency:
From 2008, about imports and self-sufficiency here.
A 2016 update here.