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For cheesemaker Chiyo Shibata, good things come in microscopic packages.

“‘Terroir‘ means the taste of place. But in Japan, cheese is a foreign product,” Shibata says. “Most Japanese cheesemakers import their bacteria from overseas and use a process from overseas. But if we can use our own bacteria with a unique method, we can make a distinctly Japanese cheese with its own special taste.”

Shibata, a trained microbiologist and owner of the cheesery Fromage Sen, believes these domestic microbes are essential for her award-winning cheeses.

Shibata first tasted cheese in 1989 when her father, a mechanic with Air France, began taking the family to Paris each summer. Inspired, she studied fermentation and microbiology at Tokyo University of Agriculture’s Okhotsk campus in Abashiri, Hokkaido, and apprenticed with French cheesemakers in Besancon and Alsace. When she returned in 2008, her plan to work for a Japanese cheesemaker fell through.

“It backfired,” Shibata says. “My experience was too impressive. They all thought I would be too expensive to hire. I was too strong in my field.”

Race for the prize: Chiyo Shibata's cheese won bronze at the World Cheese Awards in Italy. | COURTESY OF FROMAGE SEN
Race for the prize: Chiyo Shibata’s cheese won bronze at the World Cheese Awards in Italy. | COURTESY OF FROMAGE SEN

Eventually, she took a job teaching at her alma mater but, when her father fell ill, she returned to Chiba in early 2011 to help care for him and joined the National Institute of Technology and Evaluation as a laboratory microbiologist.

She also decided to resurrect her dream of making cheese. Friends helped her find a 120-year-old house that needed some love and a renter. She spent weekends and evenings refurbishing the former samurai home into a cheesery and working on recipes and techniques.

Then, in 2013, Koshida Shouten, a dried fish maker, contacted Shibata, in need of her microbial expertise. Inspectors at Tsukiji Market, one of Koshida Shouten’s primary outlets, were concerned about the safety of their brine — used to flavor the fish — and wanted the company to add chlorine to sterilize it.

Koshida Shouten hesitated. The company believed the brine, in use for over 50 years, was safe as well as key to the quality and flavor of their product. However, they also believed they couldn’t guarantee its safety without checking.

Shibata took samples and made a surprising discovery. Microbes did live in the water, but these were Lactobacillus, a diverse bacteria used in food production the world over. They gave Koshida Shouten’s fish its quality and taste while also fending off bad bacteria that could result in illness or spoilage.

“It was a completely different world in those barrels,” Shibata says. “There were bacteria from the sea, the forest, even the soil. It was a Japanese treasure.”

Shibata also realized she had found something that could help her make a uniquely Japanese cheese. Lactobacilli are integral to the process of lactic acid fermentation, which in cheesemaking begins the process of turning milk from a liquid into a solid and gives it a unique taste. She added a clean bench to her operation and began experimenting with bacteria gathered in and around the cheesery.

Country house: The pandemic has, for now, kept Chiyo Shibata at home in her cheesery, Fromage Sen. | COURTESY OF FROMAGE SEN
Country house: The pandemic has, for now, kept Chiyo Shibata at home in her cheesery, Fromage Sen. | COURTESY OF FROMAGE SEN

One year later, in 2014, Fromage Sen opened its doors with 18 different kinds of cheese made with native Japanese bacteria. She also added other unique Japanese touches to her cheeses, including a bamboo charcoal coating on her Takesumi, as well as incorporating shiokoji (a salted rice mold) and sake lees. Shibata’s work has won numerous awards annually, starting with the 2016 Japan Cheese Awards where she won silver and bronze for her Takesumi and Pickled Oil Cheese, respectively. It was in 2019, though, when Ubusuna, a cheese shaped like a round rice cake that combines Japanese and European microbes, won bronze at the World Cheese Awards in Bergamo, Italy, that Shibata felt she and the microbes had arrived.

“It was the first time in history that a Japanese living bacteria got the award,” Shibata says. “It was the happiest moment for me.”

While the pandemic has kept Shibata and her cheese at home, she keeps listening to the microbes.

“Microbes peacefully coexist despite their differences,” she says. “They help each other rather than taking from each other and live and work in balance. I think humans can learn from that, and that’s the message I want my cheese to convey.”

For more information, visit Fromage-Sen. Women of Taste is a monthly series looking at notable female figures in Japan’s food industry.

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