The Sankei News muses on the fortunes of sake in the homeland of wine – France.
Sake has been gradually gaining popularity, thanks to more healthy eating and a craze for Japanese food that tripled exports to France in five years. And a number of sake allies are trying to raise its profile through tastings and events as well.
Japan-related events were given a boost last year by Japonismes 2018, a celebration of 160 years of friendship between France and Japan. The Breizh Cafe in Montorgueil teamed up with a Japanese sake brewer to hold an event supported by The Japan Foundation, pairing sake with their famous galettes [buckwheat pancakes, often with savoury fillings]. Parisians who tried the pairings were impressed, even those trying “proper” sake for the first time. They were also impressed by the variety of styles, such as nigori, and how well it went with French food.
Although sake is gaining in popularity, it faces a number of challenges: lack of awareness, the ease of finding good wine, and the French tendency to choose French products. Taxes are high, and an industry insider commented that prices are two to three times higher than in Japan, making it hard for sake to get its foot in the door. [The EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement will remove import duty on sake, but I’ve heard it will only make a few euro difference.]
Changes are afoot, including shifts in French eating habits. More people are increasingly health-conscious, trying to avoid oil and use better quality raw ingredients. As the craze for Japanese food continues, more French chefs are incorporating Japanese ingredients such as soy sauce and also increasingly pairing with sake instead of wine. Michelin starred restaurants are actively adding sake to their wine list.
Trade statistics from the Japanese Ministry of Finance show that exports of sake to France over the last five years [article is from December 2018] have increased in volume by 260%, and in value by 340%. 2018 also saw the beginning of the French sake competition Kura Master. Ryoko Sekiguchi, who keeps a close eye on the evolution of French cuisine, notes a growing tendency among French people in recent years to look for alternatives to wine. A good sake can be a topic of conversation.
France has a powerful influence on food and drink in other countries, so it’s no surprise that the sake industry has a French conquest in their sights. Japonismes 2018 (which ran until February 2019) is another opportunity to bring sake to the French and let them experience it for themselves. Sekiguchi adds that if sake is just something cool, it will be forgotten almost immediately. She advocates creating more opportunities to allow people to get to know sake and figuring out how to make it dear to French hearts.
Parisian Sylvain Huet has been organising the Salon du Sake in Paris every year since 2013. The 2018 edition featured sake brewers from six prefectures, including Hyogo and Kyoto, and 4,600 visitors from 42 countries, including professionals from the hotel and restaurant industry, celebrated the chance to sample around 500 varieties of sake. Sylvain first went to Japan in 2000 after studying Aikido and fell in love at his first taste of sake. He went back yearly in search of more, studied to impress his aikido friends, and simply fell deeper. He closed up his consulting practice in 2009 and headed to Japan to intern at an Osaka brewery.
Hearing about his efforts, the Junior Council of the Japan Sake Brewers Association awarded him the title of Sake Samurai in 2012. Inspired to do more to help sake brewers get a foothold in Europe, he created the Salon du Sake and currently works as a export consultant, promoting sake not just in France but also in Germany.