She has been cultivating her passion for cheese since childhood.

Chiyo SHIBATA had the opportunity to spend a few summers in France. Her father, mechanical engineer in charge of the maintenance of Air France planes landing at Narita Airport, had been saving his holidays (and salaries) to take the whole family to Paris for a few weeks as often as possible. They would typically rent out the apartment of a family going back to Maghreb or Southern Europe for summer, and live the life of Parisians, buying produce from the city’s markets. That is where Chiyo met good cheese  🙂

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Chiyo graduated from university as a micro-biologist and trained at a couple of French artisan cheesemakers for a year before starting her career at the Chiba prefectural microbiology research laboratory. This activity left her a little bit of time to prepare for her life project. A few years ago, when I first met Chiyo, she had just started renting an old, beautiful former Bushi (warrior) home, with a barn, not too far from the city of Otaki and its castle (Chiba Prefecture). It is conveniently located next to a farm raising cattle for milk as well. In the barn she had built a clean modern lab paneled with wood and constructed a bar space to welcome clients once a month, for cheese & wine pairing experiences. The next steps were about transforming the house into a Minshuku (guest house) and convincing the farmer to buy Jersey cows for a “better” milk. It seems these will not be needed in the near future…

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source Koshida Shouten

She then told me for the first time the story of Koshida Shouten, a producer of Himono (dried fish, mackerel fillets in their case) from nearby Ibaragi Prefecture. The Tsukiji market had temporarily stopped distributing their products, which had no preservatives or additives, and were not pasteurized. Such a natural process was considered a threat to consumers’ health. Given the importance of the Tokyo market as a commercial route, the company had called the Chiba prefectural micro-biology lab for help. They were determined enough to wait for their judgement and resist the pressure of killing one more tradition. Chiyo analysed the finished products as well as the “brine” into which the fish fillets are plunged for a while before being dried. Such brine tubs are replenished with water when required but have not been emptied and replaced for more than 45 years. Not only did Chiyo’s studies show that the product was harmless, but the analysis revealed an amazingly rich environment, a great diversity of micro-organisms in the marinade, some originating from the sea, others from the woods, the grasslands, the mountains. Chiyo incidentally identified a few yeast that were appropriate for cheese making.

picture: Takesumi (cow milk cheese matured with a bamboo ash coating), paired with “Grazie a Dio”; I chose to open this Italian language label as a tribute to Chiyo’s success in Bergamo (see below)

In parallel, Chiyo developed the application of a few Japanese traditions to her limited production, such as the coating of the freshly rolled cheese with bamboo or Makomo ash. Makomo is a wild rice specie native to Asia, whose stems rather than grains are consumable. More importantly from a cultural standpoint though, Makomo is the higher quality raw material used to produce the Shimenawa, these braided straw ropes used in the Shinto cult to symbolically protect a particular place against evil influences, and/or indicate its divine nature.

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Chiyo had achieved an important milestone, the ability to express her country and culture through a unique cheese type, based on domestic yeast cells (she still uses “French” ferments as well though) and a Japanese maturation process. Supported by very strong scientific knowledge, her processes improved to the point where her Ubusuna cheese earned a bronze medal at the 2019 World Cheese Awards in Bergamo, in competition with more than 3,800 other types.

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Chiyo resigned from the Prefectural lab and is now fully dedicated to her cheese production at Fromage―Sen. A short video (in Japanese) introduces her vision.

There is at least one battle to fight and win domestically: get the Japanese Government to accept the production of cheese from unpasteurized milk. Her enthusiasm and energy are highly contagious. Inspired and inspiring, she progresses toward her ultimate goal: contribute to world peace through mutual understanding between nations, and the sharing of the richness of their fermentation cultures.

Asa cheese lover myself, I hope she will be able to scale production up a bit so that I can put my hand on Ubusuna or Takesumi products more regularly…

 

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