Japanese cuisine is in a class of its own, but do we really know what goes on behind the scenes from farm to table? The answers lie in Shizuoka’s abundant produce.
AN INSIGHT INTO JAPANESE TEA CULTURE
Tea drinking has been a pillar of Japanese culture for over 1000 years, and Shizuoka is one of the largest green tea growing regions in the country, home to several tea auctions for the buying and selling of tea leaves. The famous Shizuoka Japanese Tea Market is the only tea market that handles tea from all over Japan, working with a large number of tea buyers across the country.
When you think Japan produces,
you think quality.
Farmers pick tea leaves in the afternoon and roll them at night before sending the freshly rolled tea to the tea market early the next morning. Hand-rolled tea is a special form of Japanese craftsmanship, and though the craft typically yields a much smaller volume, it results in a better aroma than when machine-rolled.
Tea buyers participate in a rigorous selection process to decide which tea leaves they wish to purchase. The selected varietal of tea leaves are then steeped in boiling water for a short period of time, after which the leaves are tested for aroma and the tea for taste. The final step is analysing the colour and the clarity of the brewed tea to determine the quality of tea leaves—the clearer the liquid, the better the quality.
PROCESSING TEA LEAVES
The Marumo Mori Factory processes the harvested tea leaves for sale to consumers, and specialises in providing clients with fully customised green tea according to their needs. The first step of processing involves mixing and blending the raw, unprocessed tea leaves together, so that different varieties of green tea are used. Like coffee, the Japanese prefer different single origin teas that are mixed together to create tea blends of differing taste profiles.
The tea leaves are then sorted according to colour to remove twigs and skins of tea leaves, leaving behind just the premium tea leaves. Weight and density of the leaves are also considered—the heavier or denser the leaves, the better the quality. After sorting, the leaves are loosened up by a machine before being sent for roasting. Different levels of heat result in different tea colours; typically, the higher the heat, the more yellow the hue. Nothing goes to waste in the processing of tea leaves. Twigs are made into the second flush bancha, while tea dust is mixed with matcha powder for tea bag filling.
Many important factors can affect the final taste of green tea. For instance, fukamushi sencha is more deeply steamed, hence it has a slightly deeper green colour than regular sencha, but isn’t as bitter. Gyokuro, or Dew of the Jade, is typically savoured in small sips to appreciate its essence and goodness, or enjoyed as a drink to end a meal when paired with wagashi. Its tea leaves are shielded from the sun for three weeks before harvesting, resulting in deeper and darker coloured tea leaves due to the high level of chlorophyll present. The chlorophyll also makes the leaves thicker, giving them a higher level of nutrients than other types of green tea.
Shizuoka Distillery specialises in malt whiskey and has been distilling since October 2016, with every step of the whiskey making done on site. One batch of whiskey requires one ton of malt to start, with the grains separated into husk and grit. In the mashing room, the separated malt is mixed with hot water to induce the enzyme amylase to break down the starch into sugar. This results in a sweet, clear liquid called wort, while the malt sinks to the bottom of the tank.
The wort is then mixed with activated dry yeast for the fermentation process, which takes 24 to 48 hours. Most of the fermentation barrels are made from pine from Oregon, as the micro-organisms in the wood contribute to the flavour of the whiskey, while others are made using local cedar wood from Shizuoka. The same wood is used for the ceilings, walls and floors of the fermentation room, showcasing the local logging industry.
Shizuoka Distillery is the only distillery in the world that still uses wood fire for one of its pots. Unlike the rest of the world which uses gas, a wood stove is more environmentally friendly, and also adds to the taste. The final stop before being bottled is ageing the whiskey, which is done using bourbon casks from America. The distilled liquid is aged in new barrels for three years, so that it can fully absorb the maximum taste and colour from the cask.
THE SECRET OF SHIZUOKA’S SWEET TOMATOES
Sun Farm has been growing Japanese Amela tomatoes and the famous sweet Amela Rubins for 22 years. A unique growing process unique to these tomatoes involves burying specially coated seeds in specially formulated soil before incubating them in a temperature controlled environment, so that up to 8,000 seedlings can germinate over 25 days. After germination, each seedling is transplanted to a small pot and transported to the main greenhouse. Each pot is given minimum water (a fine balance to ensure that the tomato vine is still growing), which forces the Amela tomato to only grow to a certain round petite size, while retaining its umami flavour and sweetness.
Other factors that contribute to the flavour are the desired height of each vine (up to a maximum of 3 metres) and maintaining the average number of tomatoes growing on each vine (approximately 12 fruits). In addition, weeding and removing dead leaves is done manually to protect the delicate vines. The tomatoes are harvested from January to February and summer peak period from May to July, where each vine produces an average of 30 fruits only, thus explaining the steep price tag.
AN INSIGHT INTO SAKE PRODUCTION
Doi Sake Brewery, the producer of Kaiun Sake, dates back around 150 years, with the 5th generation owner still carrying on the tradition. The brewery mills between 35 per cent-60 per cent of polished rice, which affects the type and grade of the final sake.
The lesser the percentage of polished rice grain remains, the purer the sake will be, and thus more expensive.
The polished grains are washed to eliminate excess powder and then steamed. Koji fungus is added to convert the rice starch to glucose, and the rice is used to brew Daiginjo sake. The brewery cultivates its own yeast shubho, which imparts a gentle aroma into the Kaiun sake, making it perfect for pairing with food. About ⅓ of the shubo is transferred to the main fermentation tank, to which koji, steamed rice and water is added, creating the main mash, moromi. The rest of the ingredients are added in three stages over four days to allow the yeast enough time to propagate and allow the glucose to fully break down into alcohol over 25 days. Sake making is unique as it is simultaneous conversion of steamed rice to glucose and glucose to alcohol and carbohydrate. The process is also known as Multiple Parallel Fermentation, heikou fukuakkou, which explains sake’s high alcohol content.
For more premium sakes such as Ginjo and Daiginjo, the moromi is fermented in smaller tanks under a lower temperature, prolonging the fermentation time to 33 days. The end product has reduced acidity and results in the ginjo’s highly fruity aroma and clean taste. The brewery still uses the traditional funaba for the pressing of ginjo and daiginjo sake. The processed sake is finally filtered and pasteurised, and left to mature to develop a refined taste before bottling.
Once again, nothing goes to waste. The leftover rice mash, sakekasu, is sold to farms as fertiliser, or to food processing factories where the leftover sake lees sake kasu is used to pickle vegetables. Also, the rice flour from the initial milling process is packed and sold to rice cracker producers.
Nagura Melon Farm has been growing farm-to-table muskmelons since 1963. Melon growing starts with seed plantation in a greenhouse before being transplanted to the main farm after one month. The melon planting boxes are carefully raised over ground to control the water intake, especially in winter, so that hot water can be piped through them to keep the melons warm at the optimal temperature between 20-40⁰C. To ensure their high quality, no more than three melons are allowed to grow on each vine, and only the single best melon stays on the vine to grow to full size, which takes an additional two months to be ready for harvest.
The Farm produces an average of 10,000 melons per year, but due to the laborious growing process, rising costs, dwindling farming community and threat from diseases, each melon commands a high price between 3,500 yen to 7,000 yen. As part of fair trade, melons are sold directly to restaurants, and with fair pricing, the farming community can stay strong, while consumers can enjoy nutritious produce for years to come.
This article was first published in Wine & Dine November/December 2019: Hindsight 2020 issue.