Cheese

The first time I came to Japan was on a trade mission organised by the British government. I came over as part of a delegation that represented the British videogame industry, to attend the Tokyo Game Show and talk to various developers and publishers about mutually beneficial commercial opportunities. One of the things I remember about that trip was that somebody asked the man from the British Council (who, by the way, seemed personally affronted that he had to suffer the ignominy of hosting a trade mission on behalf of the videogame industry) what he missed most about Britain. His answer? Baked beans.

I don’t miss baked beans at all. That’s actually pretty strange. I mean, I really like baked beans, and I used to eat them at least twice a week back in Britain. But I don’t miss them at all. What I miss most is cheese. Which is also strange. Because it’s not like there’s no cheese in Japan. There is lots of cheese in Japan. There is a whole sub-genre of frozen food that’s designed for the homemade bento boxes that sustain Japan’s workforce during its working day. Tiny dumplings, mini chicken burgers, small spring rolls – a near infinite variety of mechanically-recovered meat concoctions that unleash little explosions of flavour like some sort of packed-lunch amuse-bouche. A lot of them have some sort of basis in cheese, whether it’s a miniature slice neatly stacked on top of a sauce-covered mini-burger or a delicate squidge of melted cheese in the middle of a chicken-mince and renkon sandwich.

There’s a similar profusion of fromage when it comes to their full-sized brethren: croquettes, pizzas, curries, noodles, sandwiches… If there’s a way of making something cheese-based, the chances are the Japanese have tried it. They’ve even tinkered with the very fabric of cheese itself, unleashing a profusion of different types of processed cheese on the world. They’ve got processed cheese that has a salt-sharp edge to rival the most authentic parmeggiano, and creamy concoctions that melt in your mouth, just urging you to reach for another one. They’ve got cheese with black pepper in, cheese with salami in, cheese with nuts in, cheese with different colours in.

And it’s all pretty tasty. But it’s not real cheese. It has pretty much all been made in a laboratory and it tastes like it. The one exception to that is the currently vogueish Camembert, which is real cheese, made in the traditional manner, mostly in Hokkaido. It wouldn’t pass muster if you were a Frenchman (indeed my school’s French ALT did an almost textbook Bof! Zut Alors! face when we discussed the matter and begged me not to eat any Japanese ‘Camembert’). Again, it’s pretty tasty. But it’s not the real thing.

If you want the real thing you have to pay lots of money for miniscule amounts. Which is why my favourite Christmas present this year was the real, authentic, pungent, powerful Stilton that my parents sent over with my sisters. It was like inhaling oxygen after spending a year sniffing armpits. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to describe it like sniffing armpits and then eating them. If those armpits were Stilton. But hopefully you get my point. If you’re wondering what to bring to Japan, bring some cheese.

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