|An event called ‘New Frontiers of Taste’ was
held in Cheltenham last summer,
as part of the Cheltenham Science Festival.
An audience of over 250 explored the
‘science of taste’, with a panel of experts that included
chef Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck in Bray, and
the founders of a recently launched drinks company
called Isaké. Isaké is importing a unique
range of truly premium Japanese sakés into the UK,
and part of their mission is to educate British palates
in the subtleties and intricacies of this ancient
beverage, especially by pairing different saké styles
with classic European cuisine. The process of making premium Japanese saké is every
bit as exacting as the finest wines or malt whiskies.
Whilst the source and purity of the water used is all
important, the rice for saké, a beverage that is fermented
like beer or wine, is bewilderingly complex.
|The Isaké partners are
Kumiko Ohta, a specialist in the craft of saké
making, and two Frenchmen, Xavier Chapelou and
Jean-Louis Naveilhan, both of whom are experienced sommeliers (pictured top to bottom)
An evening with Jean-Louis offered a mesmerising introduction to the rituals and precision of the world of premium saké. This is not the firewater stuff served lukewarm in countless oriental restaurants, but rare bottlings from small brewers, with prices starting at around £21, and rising to £660 for a bottle of the 115 year-old Yumatogawa brewery’s Inochi Crystal, made with the spring waters of Mount Iide and polished organic rice.
One of the main purposes of that event in Cheltenham where Isaké unveiled thier brews, was to explore umami. Traditionally the west has believed that all flavours can be experienced as just four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty or bitter. Umami, the fifth taste, has long been recognized in Japan, but largely unknown in the west. A Japanese scientist called Dr. Kikunae Ikeda discovered that glutamic acid, an amino acid, was responsible for the unique taste of Konbu, a Japanese seaweed delicacy that defied all four standard taste descriptors. This fifth taste he called umami: a savoury, slightly meaty taste imparted by foods high in glutamate.
|Isaké also import the teas of the family run Kanematsu company, founded in 1900 and producing tea in the
Shizuoka region for four generations.
Green tea is not a variety, but a way of harvest. Whilst Indian or Chinese black tea is harvested ripe then dried, Japanese tea is made from young leaves that are briefly steamed as soon as they are harvested
to preserve all medicinal and nutritional properties. Before the food came a little tea ceremony. We drank the tea, then mashed the remaining leaves with a little soy sauce before eating them. This was an introduction to
umami and, apparantly, good for the health.