Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Matsunotsukasa, Shiga

Shiga, a largely rural prefecture, borders Kyoto. Omi was its former name, and the prized wagyu that comes from Shiga is famously known as Omi-gyu. I didn't spot a grazing cow during my two winter visits here, perhaps the bovines are pampered indoors, which would account for the tender, fatty quality of their meat. Another local specialty is funa-zushi crucian carp, which is caught from Lake Biwa, the largest freshwater lake in Japan. Both these local gastronomic treats go perfectly with the locally produced sake.

I come to Shiga to visit the small, artisanal Matsuse Brewery which produces the Matsunotsukasa sake brand, one of the best sakes I know. On my way to the brewery from the train station what is immediately apparent in the flat landscape are the rice fields. Shiga is home to rice.

Each step in making Matsunotsukasa sake is done in small batches and by hand. It's back-breaking work. Last year I spent 3 days at the brewery helping make sake from dawn till dusk. I was hanging on to life by the third day. I can't imagine how the kurabito, including the toji, can work like this six months straight. At Matsuse Brewery the crew is only about 5 or 6 workers; they are constantly moving during the day. Rice waits for no one.

An ongoing internal project in the kura is brewing in an amphora-shaped clay vessel that was custom-made by an American pottery artist in Kyoto. It's an expensive way of making sake, the process takes a bit longer to finish it seems, but the sake shows extraordinary richness and depth.

Matsuse-San is a hands-on owner or kuramoto. He has a sensitive palate, an open-mind, and a generous spirit. The one thing that really matters to him about his sake is quality. He took the bold step of appointing a young toji to lead the brewery in achieving quality. His thinking was right. Today, the brewery sells out everything it makes and buyers are falling in line. Matsunotsukasa is the one sake I'm most excited in bringing to the U.S.

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