Saké's secret of the fifth sense
by Tom Cannavan, 01/06
|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.
varieties of saké rice are cultivated (all different from
eating rice), with some more highly prized than others.
Just like Grand Cru vineyards, particular regions are
famed for their suitability to grow the highest quality
rice of specific strains.
The rice is then polished to prepare it for brewing,
removing fat and proteins. For some premium saké only
35 per cent or so of the rice kernel will be left behind.
The polish, as well as the rice strain, will greatly affect
the flavour of the finished product.
||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
And so I found myself one summer’s evening in an
excellent Italian restaurant in southwest London called
Fabbrica, where Jean-Louis Naveilhan was about to
initiate me into the wonders of premium saké, and the
mysterious world of umami. It transpired that of all the
foods in which umami can be detected, ripe tomatoes
and Parmesan cheese come right behind Japanese
Konbu. Hence the Italian connection.
|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.
There followed a procession of dishes strong in umami
flavours, and matched to a specific saké: a veal carpaccio
rich with sun-dried tomatoes, pine-nuts and capers with
, a delicate, dry, grass and watermelon-scented
saké; baked cod and a salad of green beans and peppers
, a much more tangy, citrussy saké with a dry
finish; a hot chocolate soufflé pudding with Taisetsu
saké with the merest hint of sweetness and soft, rounded
Umami? Yes, I got the picture of its slightly gamy, dry,
leathery character: as much a texture and a sensation as
a flavour one can pinpoint. The quality and delicate
shades of the sakés were a revelation, opening up an
exciting vision of a whole new set of drink expressions
about which I need to learn more some day.
Isaké sells direct from its web site at www.isake.co.uk