My editor at The Japan Times has a very simple policy when hunting for cheese in Tokyo: He checks the label and if it was made in Japan (excepting Hokkaido), he puts it straight back down. To my editor I am now happy to reveal that Nagano is fast joining the elite ranks.
The landlocked prefecture in Honshu’s Chubu region is home to several dairy farms. Their average quality is quite high, and at least a few of them make cheese that is every bit as good as the more celebrated names from Europe.
For centuries Japan was a cheese-free country, mainly due to religious concerns, as keeping livestock and eating meat went against Buddhist beliefs. As a consequence, dairy products were never really a major part of the Japanese diet. Cheese wasn’t introduced to the general populace until after World War II, and even then it was primarily low-cost processed cheese, which may explain the current public preconception of what cheese tastes like.
“One problem is that many consumers don’t know how to recognize good cheese,” says Norio Masuda of the Cheese Professional Association, “while at the same time supermarkets don’t know how to sell it properly.”
Masuda says the industry should find a way to spread the word about cheese’s two major selling points, namely its particular umami and its nutritional value. He hopes that someone will someday make a manga like “Kami no Shizuku (The Drops of God),” which a few years ago did a lot to boost the popularity of wine in Japan.
Today, more and more Japanese eat and appreciate cheese (a fivefold increase since the 1970s), even though according to Masuda it still amounts to an annual consumption of only 2 kg per person. As you might guess, foreign products dominate the local market. According to a survey by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, 210,000 tons of cheese were imported from abroad in 2011, while 45,000 tons were produced in Japan.
Among the 150 small factories that produce natural, handmade cheese, there are a few whose products are of exceptional quality. One such place is Atelier de Fromage, which has been based in Tomi, Nagano Prefecture, for 30 years. Last year AdF’s Camembleu (Camembert with a heart of blue cheese) was awarded a Gold Medal by the prestigious Brussels-based Monde Selection institute. The Camembleu may be AdF’s top product, but other jewels can be found among the 13 cheeses in its lineup.
Masuda points out that producers could win the hearts of the Japanese by focusing on original combinations with local ingredients. AdF offers a green-tea cheese, one that is washed in miso, and another made with sake lees from the Shinshu region.
Across the Japan Alps, just a few kilometers from the dean of Nagano cheese makers, is one of the prefecture’s latest additions: Kaze no Tani Farm, founded five years ago by Robert Alexander, a former snowboard photographer from Australia.
“The sheer number of ski hills in Japan that were lying completely unused during the summer months was always in the back of my mind,” he says. “So when a French friend of mine introduced me to good (local) goat’s cheese, I realized that this was what I had been looking for.”
Kaze no Tani is a very small operation, so it currently makes only fresh cheeses. Its chèvre, preserved in herb-infused rice oil, is deservedly popular.
The other major player in Nagano is the Shimizu family, who run Ferme Shimizu. “We actually started in Okayama 30 years ago,” says Harumi Shimizu, the wife in the family, “but we moved our Brown Swiss cows to higher pastures in order to get better milk.”
Ferme Shimizu makes five kinds of cheese, including a nutty Bergkäse (alpine-style long-aged hard cheese) and the delicate Petit Nuage. Hard-core cheese-heads will fall in love with the deep aromatic flavor of Yama no Cheese, but the real pièce de résistance is the Fromage de Brebis, a very strong-smelling cheese. For me this is paradise; for my wife and sons — who incidentally adore natto — it’s like an excursion to the gates of hell. Either way, the die-hard cheese fan could do worse than follow his nose to Nagano.