Lauded as one of the world’s most versatile drinks, sake is prized for its universal affinity with food. The tipple harmonizes particularly well with savory fermented products such as miso, cheese and cured meats, but Kamakura-based chocolatier Cacao shows off the drink’s winsome, sweet side with a line of chocolate ganache confections, dusted with cocoa powder and infused with Yuki Otoko Junmaishu from Aoki Shuzo in Niigata Prefecture.
A mixture of chocolate and cream, the ganache has a luscious, smooth texture similar to the filling in French truffles. The sake adds a subtle aroma and umami roundness. The brew’s mineral notes offset the sweetness of the chocolate, while its elegant acidity complements the bitterness of the cocoa powder. Last year, the chocolates won a gold medal at the Academy of Chocolate competition in London.
The Yuki Otoko chocolates are available all year round, but Cacao has also collaborated with Japanese artisans to create other limited-edition products, such as a series of chocolates flavored with matcha green tea from Kyoto and another with shōchū spirits from Nishi Shuzo, in Kagoshima Prefecture.
Cacao also has a line of white chocolate ganache spiked with umeshu (plum wine) from Aoki Shuzo. I usually find white chocolate too cloying, but the umeshu’s pert acidity cuts through the sweetness and creaminess, resulting in a fragrant and wonderfully balanced bite.
The Cacao brand was created by Journey Company, a cacao importer sourcing its beans exclusively from Colombia. Journey is the brainchild of entrepreneur Shingo Ishihara, an avid traveler who wanted to start his own business after years of working for Japanese staffing firm Recruit Holdings Co. His wanderlust took him to the jungles of Colombia, where he developed a fascination for the local chocolate.
“Shingo never liked the chocolate he had found in Japan. He traveled around the world but, in the end, he fell in love with Colombian beans. He was surprised by (their) freshness and fragrance,” explains Journey’s director of communications, Natsumi Ishihara. He also realized the importance of proper handling — for example, hygiene and temperature control — to ensure ingredients would be high-quality.
Shingo Ishihara began developing relationships with growers. He sought the help of the Colombian government to bring premium cacao beans into Japan, eventually launching Journey Company in 2011, which became the first international brand to carry Colombia’s official mark of approval.
However, economic investment in the country didn’t end with the purchase of its beans: Last year, Journey Company began planting its own cacao farm in Necocli, a region on the country’s eastern shore of the Gulf of Uraba. Ishihara has also developed significant infrastructure in the area, investing in a school for children in the local villages and providing irrigation systems to small farmers who want to grow crops other than cacao. Necocli, as Natsumi Ishihara points out, remains a vulnerable area because of its strategic location for narco-trafficking.
“The social impact is a very important part of our mission as a company,” she says.
Another part of Journey’s mission is clearly to make eating chocolate a sensory experience. At the company’s Chocolate Bank — which, as the name suggests, is housed inside a former bank in Kamakura — colorful boxes of chocolate are displayed like gems in a jewelry store and stacked in a swirling centerpiece atop a large round table inside the cafe, where guests sip soothing cups of hot cocoa on a chilly winter afternoon.
Behind the heavy metal door of the bank’s old vault is a tiny bar offering wine, sake and whisky to pair with Cacao’s chocolate treats. Sounds like a match made in heaven to me.
The Chocolate Bank: 11-8 Onaricho, Kamakura, Kanagawa 248-0012; 0467-50-0172; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; closed Mondays. The bar is open Thursday to Saturday from 9 p.m. to midnight. For more information, visit www.journeycompany.co.jp.