Natsuko Mikamo, a cheese lover and expert, lives in Basel in northern Switzerland. If you want to try pairing with cheese, she recommends finding the smallest cheese shop you can because the smaller the shop the more passionate the people are about recommending great cheese.
Natsuko seems perfectly suited to developing pairings, as she loves trying out different combinations and testing the flavours and sensations for herself – not just wine and sake, but also jams and spices. She worked at Fermier, a specialist cheese shop in Tokyo, for seven years before moving to Basel to study typography. Now established as a designer, she never stopped loving cheese and made a habit of inviting friends for “cheese apéro” where they could nibble on cheese and try out different combinations with other food and drinks.
It’s not just about eating the cheese, though – she also talks about its characteristics, producers, production and pairings in as much depth as any Swiss expert.
She became interested in pairing with sake only recently, when she attended a workshop with Zurich-based sake importer Shizuku. She’d had cheese with sake before, but was impressed by their thorough approach to matching each cheese variety with a specific sake. She noted however that only a limited range of sake is available in Switzerland, and at high prices. [My constant complaint.] And vice versa, it was hard to get Swiss cheese in Japan. How could she make this particular pairing work?
Natsuko started by getting even more closely acquainted with Swiss cheese, who was making what, where, how. She felt that knowing these details enhanced the flavour of the cheese. She visited the specialist shops found in every city in Switzerland (often in the old town areas) and cheese counters in the basement of department stores, areas like Gruyere and Emmental famous for cheese but also for tourism. Shop owners were happy to suggest cheeses to pair with specific dishes, but how could she describe sake to them?
She bought three bottles from Shizuku: Iku’s Shiro (Inata Honten, Tottori), Gekkeikan Nouvelle (Gekkeikan, Kyoto) and Shirayuki Edo Genroku (Konishi, Hyogo). [The last one is an unusual choice as it’s barrel fermented and practically like a koshu despite not being aged.] She fell in love with both the bottles and the labels, but that didn’t stop her analysing the sake to start looking for matches.
- Iku’s Shiro: delicate acidity and sweetness, pair with a mild cheese
- Gekkeikan Nouvelle: good with a meal, pair with fresh small round cheeses containing garlic (Belper Knolle, German)
- Shiryuki Edo Genroku: extremely sweet, pair with 18 month matured Emmental
Natsuko’s regular shop in Basel is Mylk, which produces its own cheese and yogurt. Owner Serdar Hess suggested different cheeses, so she added those to the plates at her next apéro. Attended by both Swiss and Japanese guests, it was a huge success. She felt that one cheese plate in particular was a particularly strong match and was delighted to have got it right.