On the Road: Aichi, & Sansho
More epic than expected.
April 18, 2016
Chef Greg Dunmore is currently trekking through Japan on the latest sourcing mission for his new retail pursuit, The Japanese Pantry (where you'll be able to bring his finds to your own kitchen) and checking in here along the way.
Since this trip started after meeting Takehiro three years ago, he is wasting no time — he's arranged a visit to a mirin factory and tamari brewery, and while we
expected it to be awesome, it was above and beyond what we imagined.
We began at the Sumiya Bunjiro Brewery, which brews Mikawa Mirin. This factory is just over 100 years old, and produces mirin from only four ingredients: sticky rice, salt, shochu and koji. There is no added sugar to enhance the flavor, and they make their own shochu. This is mirin as it should be, as it originally was; aged two years, and caramel-hued with a sherry nose.
Next up was Kuramoto Denemon, the 200-year-old tamari brewery tucked in a small neighborhood in Aichi Prefecture. Nine generations have been making this amazing condiment following the same family recipe, and it was the grandfather and his grandson who showed us around the factory, while the grandmother kept us full on green tea and mochi.
The tamari here drinks like a fine wine, and kept changing in my mouth. There were notes of caramel and dried figs, and the flavor was sweet and salty, with hints of dried fruits. I couldn't help but wish for a plate of sashimi to eat with it. We were taken inside and shown the process — the steps are the same in most shoyu breweries, but this one was never modernized: everything is done completely by hand.
They age their tamari in 70 cedar vats, the youngest of which is 100 years old, the oldest 200. The aging takes three years in those vats, stacked with river stones to press the moromi (the mash of soy beans, salt and koji). The rocks come off one by one, the pressed moromi removed. At this point, they spread the paste between cloths, place the cloths on top of one another, and extract the tamari with a press. Lastly, the bitter soybean oil — which I made the mistake of tasting — is strained off, then it is filtered and bottled.
As we left, the 85-year-old grandfather waved to us, from a fork lift.
While Takehiro drove us south from Hyogo to Wakayama, we passed through valleys and into tunnels on a brilliantly sunny day. Once we pulled into Kainan City, Wakayama, we arrived at Kaneichi, a small sansho factory that is over 100 years old. Located next to small stream, the factory is flanked by bamboo groves — though if we'd forgotten that we were visiting a sansho producer, we'd soon be reminded: as soon as we step out of the car, we're overwhelmed by the heavy aroma.
Sansho, also known as Japanese pepper, has been used as both a culinary spice and traditional medicine since ancient times. The berry is fragrant like kaffir lime, but a little brighter, more reminiscent of lemon. The flavor, often used in yakitori and BBQ eel shops, has a distinctive numbing sensation when it hits your tongue.
We're met by Mr. Tsutida, the company president, who ushers us into the room where the sansho is processed. It's a sansho lover's dream; the whole room thick with a wonderfully fragile perfume. Tsutida-san shows us how the whole berries are ground between three ancient stone mills, not unlike olive oil.
Afterwards, we all pile into his minivan (also sansho-scented) and drive up the winding mountain road to a farm where sansho grows, breathtaking views of Wakayama unfolding before us. Nestled on the mountain side was the farmer’s house, who shows us how he and his wife dry the sansho and removed the steams and seeds in two separate contraptions they built themselves.
As birds chirp and mountain streams gurgle in the background, we all take a walk through their gorgeous persimmon and sansho orchards. Tsutida-san explains that Budo sansho grows here, a fuller variety that he likes best for its flavor and size. The buds of the sansho were just forming, and this was the time of the year for kinome, the tiny first leaves. When you clap them between your hands, they give off a wonderful delicate smell.
After the tour, we just walk, harvesting wild shiitakes, eating wild mitsuba, picking up mountain crabs and enjoying the wonders of the Japanese mountain springtime — one that comes after a particularly long winter.
I take a little break next to the stream, just listening. It's been yet another of those truly magical days that happen only in Japan.