It could be construed as a tough idea to swallow, the notion of pairing rich French foods like duck confit and foie gras with Japanese rice wine.
But a group of sake sommeliers is challenging diners to throw out preconceptions about traditional food pairings and to consider the potent, national drink of Japan as an alternative dinner companion to wine.
Xavier Chapelou of the Sake Sommelier Association presents a compelling case for why sake makes for a harmonious companion to certain foods like foie gras, black truffle, Parmesan and ripe tomatoes.
It’s a combination of its high alcohol content and elevated levels of natural monosodium glutamate, he explains, all of which help to boost and enhance the flavor profile of foods in the mouth.
Part of the hard sell, meanwhile, comes from a pressing strategy to promote sake in the face of flagging sales in Japan, where the drink suffers from an unfashionable and outmoded reputation.
“While sake is still the national drink of Japan, it’s now considered an old man’s drink,” he said from London. “Consumption is declining because young people are drinking beer, cocktails and wine.”
To reverse this trend, the association devised a strategy that taps into the Japanese consumer’s love of all things European as well as the stock they put in medals, labels and seals, Chapelou said.
Reversing falling sake sales in Japan
This summer, a panel of sommeliers judged sake samples from breweries across Japan at luxury department store Harrods in London, where they bestowed 18 gold, 17 silver and 16 bronze medals at the London Sake Challenge, the first of its kind.
Award-winning bottles will bear the seals of approval which will serve as a buyer’s guide for Japanese consumers faced with an ocean of sake choices. It’s expected that this new purchasing tool will be highly successful, especially given how much the Japanese value rankings, labels and seals, Chapelou said.
Pairing sake with luxurious foods like foie gras and duck confit is also a deliberate strategy to elevate the beverage from its general reputation as an inexpensive apéro and post-meal type drink to an alcohol worthy of fine dining fare.
As Chapelou points out, it’s not a huge stretch, given that celebrity chefs now feature sake on their menus — like Heston Blumenthal on his menu at The Fat Duck – as do Michelin-starred London landmarks Le Gavroche and Club Gascon.
At the former, a dish of duck miso, nashi (Asian pear) pearls and crispy lotus is paired with a Tatsuuma, Shiboritate Sake.