Climate and currents combined against self-indulgence

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This picture features two of the delicacies that are symbols of Shizuoka city’s gastronomy: Sakura Ebi (cherry blossom shrimps) and Shirasu (whitebait).

I had a hard time finding truly fresh ones during my recent short stay in Shizuoka City. As a matter of fact, for both species, autumn 2017 catches have been very low, creating an issue for professionals and consumers alike.

Unusual phenomena have been affecting the area, starting with dreadful weather in October.

The field is Suruga Bay, on the Pacific coast of Honshu, the area located North of the imaginary line joining the tip of the Izu Peninsula and Omaezaki Point, a cape that marks the most Southern point on the coastline of Shizuoka Prefecture.

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I read that the reason why there is such a concentration of Sakura Ebi in Suruga Bay is still a bit of a mystery. While the specie can be found in other places in Japan (and overseas), Shizuoka is the only Prefecture where it is exploited, because of the exceptional size of the shrimp’s population. This very small shrimp (no more than 4-5 cm) lives for about a year only, in dense aggregations floating between layers of deep waters, rather than crawling on the bottom of the sea. Its name comes from its pink color comparable to cherry blossom. Its exploitation only started about 130 years ago, after the net of a fishing boat sank deep into the bay after a handling error by the boat master, but subsequently lifted an exceptional catch, revealing an unsuspected natural resource.

Suruga Bay is a unique underwater structure on the map of Japan, the deepest and the steepest. Mount Fuji actually rises in close to a straight line from its bottom (-2,500 meters) to the volcano’s summit (at almost 3,800 meters of altitude). Major rivers flowing from Mount Fuji and Southern Alps (Oi, Abe, Okitsu, Fuji…) contribute huge volumes of pure, fresh water, and their submarine beds shape a maze of underwater valleys in the bay. More than the geology of the place (the point where two tectonic plates are colliding, and not far from the border with the Pacific one), it may actually be a very specific population of plankton living in that environment that explains why the shrimp population is thriving. Shrimps are changing depth in tandem with underwater light during the day, and clearly the dreadful October weather may have affected their behavior…and the fishermen’s activity. While it was ruining our week-ends, it prevented them form taking the sea and typhoons 21 and 22 are responsible for damages to their equipment.

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As a result, the autumn catch (fishing is only allowed a few months per year) started significantly below the usual levels. Kaki-age, a tempura of Sakura Ebi and herbs is my no less than my favorite dish in Japanese cuisine, it was time I gave a bit of background about its main ingredient.

Shirasu (whitebait) is a collective term for young, immature fish (anchovies, herrings, sardines…) traveling in large schools. Kuroshio is an ocean current flowing toward the Northeast near the Eastern shores of Kyushu, Shikoku and Honshu islands of Japan. It plays a very important role for the Japanese marine life (and therefore the fishing fleet), as it transports a variety of marine species migrating between climate zones. It happens that for the first time in 12 years, a great meander formed in Kuroshio. Water started to flow toward the East, covering a distance of more than 300 kilometers, away from the tip of the Kii Peninsula (the large peninsula South East of Osaka, known as Wakayama, Nara and Mie Prefectures), “avoiding” the coasts of Mie, Aichi and Shizuoka Prefectures. An eddy has formed near the shoreline in that region, with water flowing counterclockwise near Suruga Bay (toward the Southwest). The cause for such meander remains unknown, but historical records reveal that past great meanders resulted in record-low fish-catches, affecting Shirasu in particular.

The third delicacy on the top photo is Ikura (salmon eggs). At this time of the year wild one often comes from Hokkaido. There as well, catches have been very low. October weather has played a role, however some specialists already point at the rise in sea water temperatures, which trigger changes in behavioral patterns.

No shortage of sake (yet) thankfully. Shizuoka sake was not particularly known until about 30 years ago. The Research center of the Prefecture developed a new type of sake yeast around that time, to produce aromatic ginjos that soon attracted attention at the annual national New Sake Competition. To be enjoyed with Sakura Ebi, Shirasu and Ikura in season.

 

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Why it’s sometimes good to slow down…

From the “Sakana” series
Between Obama, stronghold of the lords of the Wakasa domain(*), and the Demachi market stalls in Kyoto, there are two main mountain passes and a little less than a hundred kilometers, mostly in Oumi (*), the shores of Lake Biwa.
The Wakasa-kaido (Wakasa Road), one of the many trade routes that converged on Kyoto, is also known as Saba-kaido, the “Road of the Mackerel”. The grey fish was an important part of the seafood transported, day after day, from the shores of the Sea of ​​Japan to the imperial capital.
Walking the trail takes 2 to 3 days (**), the perfect length of marinating time for mackerel, which starts decaying as soon as its leaves water. This marinade is often a mixture of salt and Nuka, i.e. rice bran.
On arrival, a delicious “Saba Heishiko” (鯖 へ し こ) is the joy of sake lovers.
Yes, the fantastic Japanese modern logistics, which have reduced the trip to two hours for refrigerated trucks, also has its dark face, the one that threatens so many traditional know-hows …
(*) today the Fukui and Shiga Prefectures respectively
(**) the fastest runners needed a day only

3-year old death threat

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From the “Sakana” series

It is said that Fugu (pufferish) is sometimes consumed by those willing to take their own life. Because strict regulations require fugu chefs to receive proper training and pass exams, and the serving of Fugu’s liver is now prohibited in restaurants, the number of accidents at licensed places is close to none nowadays. A potent poisonous neurotoxin, Tetrodotoxin, is produced by certain bacteria that live in red algae consumed by the Fugu. They infect the fish immune to it. Amongst the various organs, the liver and ovaries (Ransou) are said to contain large amounts of poison. There we were yesterday, eating that special “treat” kindly offered by the restaurant’s owner, and specially recommended for a pairing with nihonshu : Fugu Ransou … The “sakana” (nibbling paired with sake) had been marinated in salt for 3 years though, enough to remove all the risks of poisoning (destruction of the poison and bacteries?). The verdict: very salty, it calls for more sake indeed, its nature becomes a good conversation topic as well, however I fail to appreciate its delicacy compared to so many other Sakana.

Diamond of Katano

I keep fond memories of my first visit to Daimon Shuzo in February 2013 together with other sake students of John Gauntner.

Before receiving a phone call from his father advising him to return to Kansai so that he would have time to learn the skills required to become the 6th generation heir of the business, Yasutaka Daimon spent 7 years abroad, including some time in France. His English is excellent and his experience allows him to understand the foreigner’s viewpoint when sharing his culture, sake culture.

The brewery was founded in 1826 and is located in Katano City, between Osaka and Nara. The brewery’s environment is a bit of an oasis near what very much looks like a bedtown of Osaka, despite the presence of a few rice paddies between the buildings, on the way from the local train station. As a matter of fact, when approaching the brewery, and to his surprise, the visitor suddenly finds himself in a small village with narrow winding roads. The brewery’s old gate faces a high hill covered with dense vegetation, a promise of fresh water.

I was back there last week. What a change inside! The old buildings were still there, however a number of volumes have been beautifully renovated, showing the quality and the simple beauty of the old construction, and some of the spaces located inside the main structure were converted into reception rooms for guests. A few weeks ago I wrote about how impressed I was by the way wine & cava producers in the Penedes region (in the hills behind Barcelona) are receiving tourists, and hinted that Japanese sake producers should take lessons from good practices there. Daimon san and his partners have designed the right environment, and I hope I will be in a position to host one or several events there.

Daimon san is one of the very few kuramoto (brewery owners) that have opened their capital to overseas partners (the only one I have heard about at least…), so that the business could invest fresh capital and leverage a network overseas. Sake brewing is a capital intensive activity.

Beyond equipment for the brewing process, and the building itself, the company changed its product line up and design, aiming at selling clearly identifiable products, by foreigners in particular. On the palate as well, the sake’s acidity is quite distinctive, with rich flavours.

It was nice tasting Daimon san’s sake again after a long break, I have to be back when the Mukunetei restaurant, located on the second floor of one of the brewery’s buildings, re-opens. The nabe specialty warmed our heart up 4.5 years ago before we faced the cold winter wind on our way back to Osaka.

 

 

Yabusame

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Yabusame (horseback archery) is about 1500 years old in Japan. It was very early on performed as a Shinto ritual (Shinto = way of the deities). The number of targets hit by the riding archer galloping throughout the shrine precincts was used to tell fortunes. There are different schools across the country. The first Yabusame ceremony at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura took place in 1187. That is the time when samurais, led by Minamoto no Yorimoto in particular, are concentrating political power for the first time in Japan’s history. The old Ogasawara school has been performing that ritual in Kamakura for about 800 years. Archers wear a traditional formal costume whose remarkable pieces include an odd conical hat made of rushes, a complex silk garment traditionally worn under an armour, a waistsash made of fur, and archery shoes made of deerskin. They carry a long katana, a short sword, and a long bow.

It was a great honor to be invited to sit down near the track, close to the second target (out of three). From there I could appreciate the skills and courage required to practice such martial art. Some of the horses were galloping at full speed, and the riders had barely the time to slow them down and jump off the saddle at the end of the 255 meters long, very narrow track.

A large number of people are taking part in the ritual, from the grand marshal (Bugyo, main referee) to the Yabiroi, young boys picking up arrows from the ground with precautions, and carrying them back to the starting point.

Prior to the Yabusame itself, bows and arrows are blessed at the shrine’s prayer hall, whose altar is covered with offerings, and archers receive O-miki, sacred sake.

 

Fresh breeze on Ushitsu

A good start for a visit of Noto Peninsula after landing at the airport is Sakataru Jinja, literally the shrine of the sake barrel.

It was founded in the 9th century. Iconography shows a male deity sitting on a sake barrel floating on the waves, entering into the bay of Ushitsu (today part of Noto city), pushed by the wind. Some of the most intense matsuri (festivals) in Noto start from its grounds in July.

As a matter of fact, such deity is a wind itself, “Ai no kaze”, the wind of spring, blowing from the East, from Tohoku.

A wind of youth has been blowing on Kazuma Shuzou (sake brewery) as well. Located near the harbor in Ushitsu, it was established in 1869. Its brand name is Chikuha, which can be found across the peninsula. In his early thirties, Kazuma san recently invested into new equipment (rice cooling machine, sake analyzer, Yabuta press) so that he could lighten the work burden in the brewery for his small team, attract and/or retain young professionals. He brought the average age in the brewery down below 35 years.

Chikuha is brewing sake from water transported from a nearby spring (the kura is too close to the sea to use underground water) and rice mostly sourced from Noto (Yamada nishiki, Gohyakumangoku, Ishikawamon…). Together with a few people across the Peninsula, Kazuma san has been sponsoring a revitalization project of some of the rice paddies which had been abandoned due to the rural exodus taking place in Noto, giving a hand and buying the rice.

The result is a beautiful sake which attracts attention overseas as well. I am fond of the “Notojunmai” (sake brewed from Noto rice without alcohol addition), the pictured junmai which earned medals at both a Kanzake (warm sake) competition and a “drink in a wine glass” competition, as well as the pictured Umeshu (sake based plum liquor). I am less patient with the wild walnuts featured in the background, brought back for the market, which deserve their “onikurumi” (devil’s walnut) nickname.

Sake Tunnel

The Noto Peninsula juts out North of Kanazawa and Toyama, into the Japan Sea. Its center point is only 300 km away from Tokyo, however the rural landscapes of its northern tip (Oku Noto, i.e. “Deep Noto”) are amongst the most beautiful and best preserved ones in Japan. At last some architectural unity in villages made of farming houses! In every valley, below the deep vegetation covering the hills and the limited flat land, foothills have been exploited in small fields, of for forestry, by local farmers, and yield rice and vegetable of a high quality. They form “Sato-yama” (Yama means mountain, Sato “livable”). The coastal area is covered with fields as well, where possible, leading to a unique eco-system: “Sato-umi” (“umi” means “sea”). Satoyama and Satoumi, as well as the traditional fishing (“ama” women skin divers), cultural and religious festivals related to farming in Noto, have been designated Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems by the Food Agriculture organization of the United Nations (FAO). Local produce, including fish and shellfish captured in the generous coastal waters, has given birth to a unique food culture utilizing all sorts of fermentation processes. Nihonshu is an important element of that culture. The region has been deeply affected by depopulation and rural exodus over the last decades though. Locals explain that a number of young people have been coming in the last few years, attracted by the local lifestyle and culture, however the overall population is still decreasing and the number of empty houses increasing. On the Eastern shores of OkuNoto, a train line ran between 1965 and 2005. It was eventually dismantled, and rails sold to China (?). The Sogen brewery however, purchased a portion of the line, in particular the tunnel running behind its premises. Such tunnel became a gigantic sake cellar, protected by double doors on each side. Temperature is constant at 12 degrees Celsius and humidity remains high. Sake owner number 100, I had been storing a case of sake for up to 3 years. My recent visit was an opportunity to taste some of this nihonshu, in particular an unpasteurized one. I was a bit nervous when opening the bottle, but the sake was brilliant. Protected from further fermentation by its acidity, it developed more intense flavours. I shipped a few more home ….