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After a harsh winter cherry blossoms are starting to appear in Japan a week earlier than usual, so it’s time for the Japanese version of the Western office Christmas party, the one that all the legendary stories come from – it’s hanami.

Niconico News has a suggestion for people who want to have a little something special with their sake while they venerate the flowers – cheese. Chiba Marie from the sake bar GEM by Moto is back, this time at a pop-up cheese shop called La Maison du Fromage in Omotesando.

She studied chemistry at university, and brings that scientific knowledge to bear on sake. She also frequently deals with breweries and helps to spread the word about the joys of sake through collaborations. 

Chiba prepared two types of sake and two cheeses each to match for tasting.

  • Hō-ō Biden “Black Phoenix” daiginjō from the Kobayashi brewery (which I was lucky enough to taste in Osaka in Nov 2017)
  • Masuizumi namazake kijōshu from the Masuda brewery

Daiginjō sake with a fruity aroma, like Black Phoenix, are full of amino acids, also known as sources of umami flavour. Which makes them a perfect match for umami-rich cheeses.

The cheese that the article claims goes best with sake is the French mimolette. It’s full of umami, and the article compares it to karasumi (Japanese dried mullet roe) or bottarga (Italian salted and cured fish roe). (I’ve never had either, so I can’t comment.)

However, Chiba’s choice at the pairing are two other French cheeses. First Munster, a washed cheese with a slightly grainy surface. It’s compared to nattō (not my favourite thing) but doesn’t have a strong smell which makes it more accessible for cheese-naive Japanese. And second, a Comté aged for 18 months.

The Munster goes will with Black Phoenix, with the fruitiness of the sake standing out against the thick, creamy mouthfeel of the cheese. The Comté is firmer, with aroma bursting out whenever a piece is broken off to eat. The young cheese isn’t very distinctive, but 18 months of ageing produces aromas of pineapple and nuts. It makes a curious combination with the Black Phoenix, tropical with the cheese seeming lighter and the acidity of the sake more pronounced. It’s relatively easy to find, and convenient to cut and carry around, making it ideal for picnics. Commenting that sake is often paired with lighter cheeses, the article recommends trying matured cheeses where proteins have had time to generate umami, and fat time to produce aroma.

For the Masuizumi kijōshu, Chiba brings out Fourme d’Ambert, a semi-hard blue cheese, and Langres, a soft cheese that comes in small pieces. Both French cheeses again. The Fourme d’Ambert is mild for being so blue, and the writer compares having it with kijōshu to putting honey on the cheese before eating it. Being brewed with sake in place of some of the water, kijōshu concentrates the natural sweetness present in sake. The heavy, rich flavour goes perfectly with blue cheese.

The Langres, another washed cheese, has a peculiar smell and a yogurt-like acidity, leaving a chalkiness behind in the mouth. Pairing with kijōshu produces a pineapple-like acidity, and a curious taste. But the author still recommends it as a combination for people who aren’t that familiar with cheese.