Our Lives | TELLING LIVES

A slice less ordinary: the 'cheese guy' of Okinawa

Briton sells cheese-eating culture to Okinawa and a taste of the Ryukyus to the rest of Japan as retirement hobby morphs into business

John Davis is obviously a well-known figure in these parts. As he walks me through the local farmers’ market in the village of Ozato, where he operates a stall every Friday purveying his homemade cheeses, several people greet him.

“When the display is set up,” he tells me, “I get these little old ladies who have never eaten the real thing before coming up and sampling the ones I produce. Before long, they’re back asking for wine recommendations.”

When Englishman Davis first arrived in Japan in 1976, the cheese choices were limited to processed fare — which he likens in gourmet terms to instant noodles — or expensive imports. Having run a language school in Tokyo for a number of years, he eventually sold the business and moved to Sapporo, his wife’s hometown, where he opened another school. Weighing his retirement options, Okinawa won out over Spain, the couple moving there in 2005.

Davis was able to partially satisfy his craving for authentic cheese by bringing back a suitcase full of samples on successive visits back to the U.K., and by getting himself admitted onto U.S. military stores by friends he made from the bases. Wishing to fabricate a likeness of cheese to satisfy his own table, he made tōfuyō, a form of tofu that, during Okinawa’s existence as the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, could only be sampled by members of the royal court. Noted for its firm, cheesy texture and taste, the side dish is made from fermented and dried shima-dōfu (island tofu) and local awamori liquor, mixed with beni-kōji and ki-kōji cultures. The results — pleasingly flavorsome, faintly sour and complex — were, however, only a poor substitute for the cheeses Davis grew up with.

Initially, Davis wanted to import cheese cultures, but the immigration barriers were too high, so he decided to set up his own factory. It is with no small touch of irony that, with more orders for cheese coming in than can be met, the retired teacher, 66, finds himself busier than ever. An ambition to stock his own kitchen has turned into a viable commercial enterprise.

A dependence on supermarket milk provided a temporary alternative to farm-fresh full-cream milk but failed to satisfy Davis’ high standards for cheese production. He now obtains milk from the Oyadomari Bokujo, a dairy run by an Okinawan friend who owns a herd of some 130 Holsteins. Healthy-looking and pampered, their pens are cooled with electric fans and regularly mucked out to ensure cleanliness and a minimum number of the pestilent flies you see swarming around cows in Okinawa’s sun-scorched open fields.

Davis’ current center of operations is located on the same premises as the dairy in Nanjo, a semi-rural city contiguous with Naha, Okinawa’s prefectural capital. There’s no mistaking the smell of a cowshed, the reek of animal and hay, but the milk he uses could hardly be fresher. There are no additives to the full-cream product, which is pasteurized at 63 degrees Celsius, a relatively low temperature that helps to preserve its flavor.

I sense a different odor — sour, winy, fermented — as the door opens to Davis’ workspace. First we must remove our footwear before entering, replacing them with rubber sandals, and then wash our hands — necessary precautions to forestall bacterial invasion. Sanitation is vital, Davis says, explaining that all his cheeses are prepared with a carefully tested, extremely healthy and robust bacteria known as EM, or efficient microorganisms.

When I ask Davis what, beside physical location, defines his cheese as Okinawan, he cites the inclusion of local dried mushrooms, fūchibā (Japanese mugwort), the use of island herbs, day lily, pipātsu (long pepper), hibiscus tea and a purple beni imo (purple yam) cheese that has become a signature brand. Then there is the salt ingredient.

Davis refuses to use anything other than Aguni Island salt. Distinct from mass-produced products, workers at the salt plant on Aguni, west of Okinawa’s main island, create a hand-made brand from the purest waters of the East China Sea. Sun-dried in either greenhouses or brick containers, Aguni salt contains as many as 60 different kinds of minerals, such as selenium, phosphorus and manganese, each with unique elements and properties beneficial to health and, perhaps in the Okinawan context, longevity. Salt is vital to the process, adding flavor and slowing down the activity of the cheese culture, which in turn facilitates a slow maturation.

The experimentation is not confined to Okinawan blends. Davis shows me a product made from dried cheese infused with Hokkaido ale.

“I’m always innovating,” he says, “trying out new ingredient combinations and seeing how the customers react.”

One supposes there are variables in cheese making, like potters removing an item after it has been fired in the kiln and discovering unanticipated effects. Davis corroborates this, welcoming the small imponderables of his craft.

Davis uses gettō (shell ginger) — sannin in the Okinawan language — to wrap cheeses for his customers. Like an oak cask, the leaf of this subtropical plant contains natural yeast. As I watch Davis snapping off leaves and throwing the stalks on the floor, a fresh green aroma fills the workplace. For extra insulation against bacteria, he wraps his cheeses in unbleached cloth.

Besides the sheer love of making cheese — more a calling than a business — Davis’ mission is to get Okinawa on the map as a food-culture destination, offer products that are affordable, and to encourage Okinawans to take up the cheese-sampling habit. Supplying restaurants that need cheese to augment their European menus, he also holds events at wine shops and bars. When I met him, he had just made a presentation the day before at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Nago.

Davis has recently added a degree of mechanization to his operation with a new pasteurization vat, which was made to his own specifications. This will increase production but, he is at pains to emphasize, will not in any way compromise the product’s handmade character and quality.

Struggling to keep up with increasing orders, Davis has taken on three more cheese makers and a secretary, and also benefits from the help of volunteers happy to muck in. With storage facilities pinched, the ambitious “cheese guy,” as he promotes himself, has his eyes set on a plot of nearby farmland he would like to build an artificial cave on. “Its located on high ground,” he says, “so it’s unlikely to get flooded. Using semi-porous bricks, we could maintain the right level of humidity.”

Given that the only way to test a product is to sample it, I was able to do just that a month after leaving Okinawa, when an assortment of cheeses, selected by Davis, arrived at my home. These were medium-size wedges, though Davis does produce larger samples in the 3-5 kg range. The package included five representative samples.

Ozato White is a faintly milky product that is mild with a compelling dried yogurt taste, but an assertive cheese texture. Toscano Pepato is a Pecorino-style cheese stained an indeterminate gray, presumably from the black peppers crushed into the body of the cheese.

Ozato Blue is defined by its firm, faintly acidic taste and chalky, slightly friable texture. This is blue cheese for people who ordinarily do not like blue cheeses. Yellow Mellow, as the name implies, is a smooth affair with traces of blue mold. If the cracked surface suggests a product slightly past its prime, it turns out to be a potent cheese, full of life.

For the most part these were paired with French clarets and English ale. Once these cheeses were gone, one remained, a small, powerfully odiferous wedge, suitably named “From the Back of the Cave.” As the name suggests, the musty, yeasty smell and slightly brown, nutty surface evokes the decomposing storage conditions of a dungeon or Bavarian catacomb rather than a cooler or refrigerator. The taste stays firmly on the palette.

Morsels of the 1-year-old cheese merited an equally rarified beverage, so were paired with a bottle of Harusame 10-nen-Kusu, a very decent, rather expensive aged awamori. It was the very least I could do.

See John Davis’ website (www.thecheeseguyinokinawa.com/about-us) for more information and www.facebook.com/thecheeseguyinokinawa for upcoming events. Davis displays his products every Friday at the Kariyushi Ichi farmers’ market in Ozato, Nanjo city, Okinawa. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

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