Japan’s image of quality cheese has remained firmly attached to fine European imports. Processed sliced cheeses of the Kraft variety are ubiquitous, but for the “real” stuff you’d be smart to visit an international supermarket for a decent selection.
Imported cheese is certainly gaining in popularity — it’s not only sold in department store basements but also specialty shops across Tokyo. There are the mainstay import-food stores such as Kaldi or Fermier, which, in addition to having several locations around Tokyo, offers online ordering (www.fermier.co.jp).
Even in regular local supermarkets, the cheese sections seem to be expanding beyond the standard mozzarella and cheddar to offer blue and cream cheeses from France and Switzerland.
But on a recent supermarket run I noticed a peculiar standout: A block of white cheese with a label that proudly announced it was “Made in Hokkaido.”
Which made me wonder, in the current cheese boom, is Japan starting to consider itself a maker of fine cheese comparable to those from Europe?
Out of Fermier’s online selection, 57 cheeses are domestically made. Far less than the number of European imports, but still a promising number.
I decided to go on the hunt for homegrown cheeses.
For vegetarians concerned with the use of animal products in the cheese-making process, there is one Japanese company — Yotsuba Nyugyou — that makes almost all of its varieties without rennet (the exception is its Camembert). The company’s Hokkaido Tokachi 100 brand cheese is offered widely in supermarkets as string cheese, cheddar and others types. While its reason for avoiding rennet was not clear, the company claims it is following a model set by international brands. Whether the move is motivated by money or animal welfare, vegetarians will be happy to have rennet-free options.
With all this on my mind, I tried my luck at Fromage (for more information, visit www.fromageclub.com) in Tokyo’s Shibuya ward — it’s heaven for cheese and wine lovers.
This cozy bar offers an astounding variety of fine cheeses (mostly European) and imported wines. The owner, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of his offerings, will confidently recommend pairings. And while he was adamant that hard cheeses made in the traditional way all contain rennet, he was happy to point out six of his soft cheeses that didn’t. The three I chose for Fromage’s basic cheese plate (presented on a wooden slab with dried fruits and wafers) were delicious — the Saint Agur blue was as creamy as frosting and not overpowering, and finishing with a truffle selection was divine.
Fromage also offers main dishes such as risotto and pasta, and the owner can make sure vegetarians are catered to.
Whether it’s imported or not, I’m glad to see that cheese — especially vegetarian-friendly options — is gaining popularity in Japan.
At Fromage, the only problem is getting carried away in a delicious cycle of cheese plates, with just a bit more wine, a bit more bread, then a bit more cheese, ad infinitum.