Thursday, 30 June 2011

[Discovery - Sake] Unmeino-osake: Sake Tasting at Tombo Deli; South Kensington

In what can only be described as an epiphany culminated from an extraordinary series of events... Extraordinary only in the context of the relative lack of activity beyond breathing I usually find myself in, this evening truly was a discovery for me. Someone hold me. It was emotional.

Having been for a long time enamoured by the Japanese culture and society, primarily for the Automotive spectrum but not exclusively so, my recent obsession with Sake' drew rather curiously from an event that was due to occur in London in Mid-summer, brought to my attention by a friend. Whilst my interests are generally prohibitively limited to the gastronomic and automotive realms with everything else seemingly knocking me into a state of conscious coma - other and social exercises notwithstanding, I'm not a total recluse - the premise of the "Hyper Japan" exhibition seemed initially completely redundant and profusely boring to me. Until I caught site of the "Cuisine" Section. Attention sparked!

In amongst the reams of stalls I wished to indulge in a spot of fantasy face-to-food interaction, I came across one Sake' Stall description, and for some reason something clicked - I'm not sure what, why or how, but seeing the reams of Sake' varieties at a stall, then followed by the gargantuan listing on the company's website, I suddenly became awash with the notion of discovering more behind this "rice water", perhaps there was more to this scalding hot cup of Basmati Juice. Which I guess is my first real move towards this slightly contrived road to gastronomic discovery, and hence the very reason for this largely unread blog! Purpose, restored. 

So, research, ensues. Notion of being a perpetually ignorant Philistine confirmed. Sake' ISN'T a digestive? It tastes FRUITY?! It isn't generally meant to be served at the temperature of the sun?! Hold on. It doesn't taste of Basmati? The hell have I drunk that one time long ago so indistinct I cannot remember much or anything of the occasion o_o. This research eventually drew me to the Eat Japan website, wherein I read an article written by a Philip Harper, apparently the only foreigner "Toji" or Master Sake Brewer in Japan's history. So he may have some insight. And insight he gave. Further engorged, I read through the Sake Directory on the same page, discovering the regions, styles and some of the variants of Sake' in existence - non of what I read meant anything whatsoever to me, but this just motivated me further. Nowhere was there a mention of Eau de Rice, with wonderfully intricate descriptions sprinkled with more than a little Engrish to keep me tantalised and seek to end my ignorance. So. Google. Sake' Tasting. Yes, this is still the introduction. 

British Sake Society. Hmm, sounds interesting. Sake' Tasting at a restaurant for a reasonable price? Convinced. Email sent to a couple of Japan-enamoured friends, and the scene was set. Some further reading on the British Sake Society website further served to confound me, still rather blank-faced at the entire notion. In arriving at the rendezvous at Tombo, I at once felt comfortably out of place, being the only individual sporting the prepubescent facial foliage that tried its hardest to make me look below the legal drinking age. 

Sat in a corner with my two purveyors of Sake' Novicery, we were surrounded by all sorts in this tiny
 deli/cafe, none emitting the air of total ignorance as I did - either this meeting is going to have to cater for a broad spectrum of and last a decade, or details will slip through and I will completely miss the concept, splendid ^_^. As the main speaker announced himself, a lanky and slightly pompous - though befitting of the drinking club and Kensington surroundings I would imagine, all endearing - 4m tall individual, we quickly read through the notes, though being completely flummoxed at doing more than one activity at once, nothing actually stuck. So I carried on clueless. At a certain point, the speaker laid it on thickly how he remembers distinctly when he first sampled the "True" sake' many years ago and how it was a distinct moment in his life and bla. I giggled. In my head. Only to issue myself an imaginary facepalm but mere fractions of a second later as we sampled the first of the Sake's. 

It was sweet. Fruity, very delicate. Rigorously didn't taste of Essence of Basmati. How. Very. Odd. It was primarily like a wine, but one that did not effectively replace all flavours in your mouth with its own, emasculating what sense of taste you previously had. Then. It was combined with the first "dish". Oh my. One nanosecond all my preconceptions are altered, the next, I am experiencing quite frankly a discovery of epic proportions. Yes, EPIC. It was only a poached egg in Dashi, but how the hell is the Sake' altering this morsel to quite this extent?!

It was a very peculiar sensation - whereas with a wine you actively combine the flavours of food and drink in a hopeful splendiferous amalgamation, when the food is combined with the Sake' you get a very different effect. At once the sake' almost falls to the background [though still apparent] and seems to lift the flavour of the food to the forefront, with little notes of the sake' coming through. As cliche'd as it is to just follow on from what experts say - and well, as an utter newb, I have ample grounding for such - it really was the case. It is not a pairing like with a wine, it's difficult to describe. The sake' just amplifies what is there. This phenomenon would only repeat itself several more times, though particular attention will be reserved for the last..

As previously mentioned, the first sake was a very delicate and fruity one, apparently marketed to the women folk of a town that wanted a sake' to bring "tears of joy" to their eyes. Oh mercy me. I must be a woman then. Judge me when you sample it. Heathen. Unfortunately, I was perhaps the only individual that had to resort to normal cutlery, for which I was lambasted. I've grown to be accustomed to my chopstick-dementia, not that it bothered me. Equally refreshing was how this seemed to be a very much informal tasting, with the members seemingly not waiting for the speaker to catch pace and scoffing down their food [yeah I saw you..]. So I followed suit. Grunting included. The next sake' then slapped me with another surprise. This one too brought to tongue no semblance of Basmati Tonic!

Ok, I'll cease with the Basmati-based insights ^_^.

I cannot remember specifically what I was tasting at that moment in time, such was the mentally debilitating experience I was being succumbed to at the time, I believe this one had front notes of aniseed of all things - another light sake', with more fruity notes. I just did not understand! Then came the next sampling which was moved in a completely different spectrum - immediately to the nose this one was different, altogether more savoury, confirmed by the tasting. Then it was combined with the grilled eggplant dish, which on its own was sublime. Jeebus. Whilst the concept of "Umami" or "Savouriness" is quite nonexistent in my repertoire, having only heard it in the past, only assuming it was some higher state of mind or spirituality as I default for most enticingly sounding Japanese words. Which suits perfectly the situation. Win! Broken train of thought - essentially, this sake' seemed to bring forth some of this savouriness quite well. I was quite unimpressed with the Kate Moss-esque sized portions, but seemingly I misunderstood the notion of "Included Dinner". Blatantly O_o. No matter, sake' and flavours redefining my life, I will supplement this transgression later on.

Then came the special one.

This one apparently was alive. True story. It was a "Namazake", which is to say a young sake which has not been pasteurised, thus meaning that the yeast fermentation was continuing. Means absolutely nothing to me, but, apparently makes it a delightful sake. And delightful it was. The fruitiest of them all. Hello Sailor and everything! This one immediately captivated all three of us outcasts, and from the groans and "rarr"ing from the connoisseurs' table, I would think them as well. It was astounding just what sort of differences were emanating from just these 4 samples of sake, not differentiating much in their brewing characteristics [the milling ratios went 50, 65, 70 & 60 respectively, so not too different in grade]. Again, my face exploded when this sake was combined with the delicate chicken meatballs, obviously infused with ginger and all the more delectable for it. Which also came with some little cubes of fried tofu which have completely altered my perception on what were always previously gummy cubes of profound nothingness. These, were, lovely. This sake' immediately had us planning how to elbow our ways to get to purchase the bottles before the others. However, then the coup de gras came.

What was served next was not a sake', but rather an Umeshu, which to you infedels would be a plum wine - and it was served with a sort of Salmon rice-cake confection. Odd - this is basically a dessert wine in description, the speaker proclaimed how another noted drink for combining such a concentration of citric acids and sugar were sports drink, and lead on to exclaiming how it is humorously referred to as a perfect pre-exercise refresher. HAH. -_o

So, bite of salmon, sip of umeshu. Imploded face. Moment of deliberative coma. This. Was. Argh. Yes. Argh. It is the only adjective that can captivate the oddly perfect combination just experienced by my mouth. If I am seemingly preaching all praises, I can only fault you for not partaking. It simply was, amazing, and perplexing. How is such a sweet drink combining so well with SALMON?! Yet another difficult to describe phenomenon, so I shall not bother. This drew up the precarious situation of deciding which bottle to buy - regardless, we quickly made for the counter. However, decision was largely settled when I inquired as to how the living sake' would fare, as I do not drink on my lonesome. As it goes, it should ideally be drunk within 3-4 months, but once opened, within the week. Ah. The umeshu was also cheaper. DONE. 3 bottles bought. My wallet cried. I cried. They were all however tears of joy. And then onto Boisdale to actually eat.

So, my first real discovery. How did it move me? Well, I actually asked more questions [2] than I ever did during my time in University during the talk. I constantly find myself deliberating on where to research in order to further deepen this discovery. I have already introduced one other friend to it's awesome combination with food, and we are both pending to join the club. Especially so as it is cheap. Again, score. It really is an amazing drink, it cannot be highlighted just how enlightened I was during the course of the evening, and all I sampled were a very small number of sake's, without even diverging into the different filtration grades, aged sakes, or even serving of sakes at different temperatures [that would take place a day later]. How such a broad spectrum of characteristics can be drawn from a simple grain that, at least by my perception of rice, is a rather monotonous grain, has me completely befuddled. It's ability to lift and display the flavours of the food are at once even more of a mindfluff.

This truly was a pleasant discovery - I typically do not like to drink alcoholics, my dint of its empty calories you see - one that has introduced me to a diverse culture, and even altered my own to some degree. As in now I prefer sake' with food, rather than wine. Hence. Affected. Much. So. Sake' of destiny, or Unmeino-osake. Hyper Japan, an exhibition of all things Japan astonishingly enough, will host a Sake' seminar on the day I go, along with a couple of stalls. Together with the Club, and the purchasing of some material, research and otherwise, I aim. To enjoy this discovery. Plenty. It's amazing what is discovered when I take the infrequent decision to exit my room ^_^.

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