Our new contributor, former sommelier Donald Edwards, reports back from a sake and food tasting at Novikov and reveals why the art of sake appreciation has a lot to teach wine-lovers.
Sake is sometimes a struggle. Trying to understand its myriad subtleties can feel like staring into the implacable face of a Zen monk. It’s as if you’re trying to read the contours of the bottom of a lake from the ripple of the stone you’ve thrown.
As I see it there are essentially three main obstacles to appreciation of sake. Firstly the language barrier - sadly there’s not much I can do about that one. Secondly, the complexities of its production, eight main categories split into those without added alcohol (Junmai) and those with. Finally, the clincher for those of us in Britain. The lack of sake culture and consequently the relative difficulty of finding good sake (though this is changing).
Sake is an incredibly refined drink, graded by the percentage of the rice grain that has been polished away before the primary fermentation can begin. The outer layers of the rice contain proteins and oils that are thought to make a less pure drink. What this means in practice is that the very best sake has an incredibly delicate and refined character. This has important implications when considering it with food.
The Japanese, in their sake appreciation, demonstrate an astute understanding of how we create a mental flavour construct. There is a clear separation of the aromas encountered orthonasally, uwadachi-ka, the initial smell, and retronasally, fukami-ka, those encountered whilst the sake is in the mouth and the taster breathes through the nose. This is particularly pertinent because it is in the retronasal passage that we find the bulk of the neurons responsible for creation of the mental concept that is flavour - incidentally, also the reason that we can perceive an almost innumerable number of flavours, yet need the assistance of a tracker dog to follow smells (an orthonasal function).
However, I digress. This separation of aroma from flavour is nowhere near as well delineated within Western wine appreciation.
Following this we reach modori-ka, the after-taste; this is where all that concentrated rice starch has fermented into essentially the essence of umami. The most delicate of sakes, initially little more than a hint of pollen on the breeze, transform themselves in a blossoming of flavour, an aftertaste that seems to build and build, a booming echo from a mere whisper.
Interestingly this umami afterglow changes hugely with temperature, meaning that sake served cool in a glass will take you on quite a profound journey, a mini master class on the many facets of umami. It’s this base line, so rooted in such a principle component of taste, which for me gives sake its principle strength when matching with food.
I’ve long held that great food and wine matching is not only a compromise, but also a thing of alchemy. One must decide whether it is the dish or the wine that one is looking to emphasize. With great wine one might want the food to take a back seat. With a very complex dish it may be the wine that steps back.
The alchemy comes when we consider inherent complexities. I believe that we’re drawn to complexities. Take limonene, the main flavour component in the smell of an orange. Smelling it immediately brings to mind oranges. However, it’s obvious that it’s not a ‘real’ orange smell. If we run orange essential oil through a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (I usually do this just after my morning coffee) we see that as well as limonene we have smaller concentrations of similar chemicals. We also see the components arranged in what a musician would understand as harmonics. Think of it as being a little like how a perfect D sharp from a synthesizer differs from that played on a cello.
When I’m thinking about matching drinks with food I like to look for similar underlying notes in both aspects, so that when partnered one encounters complimentary complexity - think constructive interference patterns with waves. With sake it is that umami blossom that immediately springs forth as the obvious component to match.
I was recently invited by Sam Sake to attend a lunch exploring some less than conventional sake and food pairings at Novikov in London. This gave me the chance to look at how different styles would interplay with Novikov’s Italian and Japanese dishes.
Lachamte, Futsh-shu (basically sake table wine): this was lightly carbonated and with its low alcohol and dominant floral, melon and ripe pear notes seemed like an obvious replacement for a delicate sparkling moscato. This was served with Charantais melon, an aperitif combination as charming as it was obvious.
Harukasumi Yamahai – Honjozo: a medium sweet sake, again redolent of ripe pear, melon, white flowers and cucumber, but also with deeper notes of fennel seed appearing on the palate. This was served with a Gillardeau oyster, the algal sea spuma jostling with the green floral side of the sake while their combined creaminess fused beautifully.
A short humorous interlude on the subject of oysters:
According to experts, the oyster
In its shell – or crustacean cloyster-
May frequently be
Either he or a she
Or both, if it should be its choice ter.
Berton Braley (1882-1966)
Mansakuno Hana – Junmai Ginjo: we were approaching the very top end of sake here - delicate and subtle initially, building to a great crescendo of umami. We had this with some otoro tuna - however I couldn’t resist asking the maître d’ for some shaved parmesan, so much did the aftertaste remind me of the flavour enhancing qualities of the cheese, and indeed the two worked beautifully together.
One of my favourites of the day was to follow. Fukurokju daiginjo. This distinguished itself with a glorious sort of minerality on the palette, much more austere. It was served with a seabass carpaccio, dressed with little pieces of salty black olive which unexpectedly proved to be the link that brought the dish together.
It was at this point that things got more avant-garde. The next sake was Mansakuno Hana Hyakunenmae, made in the style of sakes from the pre-modern era. The rice was crushed before being fermented, also there was a noticeably larger amount of Koji (the mould used to ferment the sake). This gave the sake an intriguing oxidative and fungal character. One that really reminded me of that slight note of mould one often finds in the aromas of great botrytised wines.
The sake was drier than the ones we’d been served before and was served with roast veal loin on Spello lentils. This was the surprise of the meal, the rich earthy lentils working beautifully with the mushroomy, nutty notes of the sake. Think a cross between sake and an amontillado sherry. Once you added in the moreish umami finish you really had a drink that could happily accompany all sorts of Western dishes.
Several other sake and food pairings made their way to the table, some more successful than others but what continued to strike me was the effortless grace with which the best sakes moved from subtlety to power and the different matches that this suggested.