Cheese might not be the food item that you would imagine as a part of a meal in Japan. However, both the popularity and the level of sophistication of cheese products are growing continuously in the country. Western food has also become an essential part of local food culture. French and Italian food are everyday items—not only in the thousands of restaurants serving them but also in local households. No one is surprised if a Japanese customer orders pasta al dente, routinely picks a glass of European wine from the drink list or buys the right veggies for a dinner ratatouille. As a new trend, the number of Japanese cheese experts is also on the rise.
Best Fromager Championship
When we visited the Third National Best Fromager Championship in Tokyo a few weeks ago, what we saw was not even close to our expectations. We were blown away!
Nine finalists were competing for the winning titles. They came from different parts of the country and a wide range of professional backgrounds. One of them was a pastry chef specialising in food for children, while another participant was working for one of the famous Michelin star French restaurants in Tokyo. Although all the participants were food professionals, they spent weeks on preparation and practice. One of the participants even took a week off work to make the most out of her performance.
The judges are Japanese cheese experts. Mr Kaneko and Ms Murase are not only internationally acknowledged and active, but they also successfully run their own cheese expert programme in Tokyo. In 2013, Ms. Murase was the winner of the Concours Mondial du Meilleur Fromager, which is the top-ranking award for cheese experts.
The contest had three sections. The first two included a written portion, blind tasting or a cutting technique test. However, the most spectacular one was the last section, which included artistic exercises, such as taste marriage, artistic cutting and preparation of an artisan plate.
The judgement criteria involved a wide range of aspects; not only was the level of skill important, but so was the balance of the results in each section. As observers, we were surprised at the creativity and professional approach of all the participants. In contrast to the European cheese arts that we have seen, there were typically more details and more explanation (such as small labels or descriptive elements) attached.
The winner was Ms Nagahara, who successfully combined Japanese cultural elements while meeting all the artistic and cheese expert requirements for each exercise.
Natural cheese is a growing segment in Japan. Not only the consumption but the production as well. Cheese Art Fromager Association of Japan and the National Best Fromager Championship are paving the way for a world-class cheese market in Japan. Through Mr Kaneko and Ms Murase, thousands of students have already become cheese experts in Japan. This number will continue growing.
If you enjoyed this article, find more on the Japanese food market in TOO International’s insights.