On a sweltering summer afternoon in Milan, Japanese food enthusiasts meandered through the marble-lined halls of the Palazzo delle Stelline, a 17th-century landmark that faces the church that houses Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” Inside, a group of Italians dressed in yukata (summer kimono) stopped to sample freshly griddled takoyaki (octopus dumplings) at a booth, while diners in the cafe browsed shelves displaying Japanese products such as green tea and rice crackers. From late June to mid-July, the Stelline had been the site of Salone del Giappone, an exhibition devoted to the cuisine and culture of Japan, which was sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries as part of the Expo Milano 2015 world fair, which runs through Oct. 31.
Marco Massarotto, founder of the nonprofit cultural organization La Via del Sake in Italy, was facilitating a tasting workshop in the building’s main auditorium. Cameras flashed as he presented an unusual pairing of carne salada (a delicacy of salted beef from the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Italy) with Urakasumi Zen Junmai Ginjo sake from Miyagi Prefecture.
“The salty and meaty flavors of the carne salada will intensify and then melt with this full and rich junmai,” he said, inviting guests to try the combination.
Massarotto had several surprising matches for the workshop, which featured sake from six breweries located in different regions of Japan. Each sake was paired with a traditional Italian snack to demonstrate how the drink could marry with non-Japanese flavors. (My favorite match: dried bottarga mullet roe and celery with Kimura Fukukomachi Daiginjo).
The tasting event followed a sake symposium that I had moderated with Massarotto, who spoke alongside Masters of Wine Markus del Monego from Germany, and Sam Harrop from New Zealand. The symposium focused on the emergence of sake as an international beverage over the past decade, but rather than going over basics, the discussions touched on a range of complex issues facing the industry. Sommelier del Monego pointed to the need for sake education and urged sommeliers to experiment with the drink; Harrop highlighted challenges of scalability and global distribution, advising brewers to follow examples set by New World wine producers; and Massarotto described his experience leading gastronomy tours in Japan and showed how culinary tourism can benefit the sake industry and the Japanese economy.
The members of the audience, who had sat quietly through the presentations and scribbled notes dutifully, became markedly more animated during the tasting workshop. They rushed to scoop up piquant chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano vacche rosse cheese, filling their glasses with full-bodied Narutotai Motozake Mizu to Kome. They toasted with brewers from the Kitaya and Dewazakura sake breweries. Several posed for pictures with the voluble Atsuhide Kato, president of Kato Kichibee Shoten, whose Born Yume wa Masayume Junami Daiginjo was delightful with slices of Proscuitto ham from San Daniele del Friuli.
As Kato produced a pricey bottle of his award-winning, 10-year-old aged sake from under the table, a jubilant mix of Italian, English and Japanese floated around the room. The international language of conviviality had prevailed.
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