By making all grass-fed, artisanal cow and goat cheeses in the highlands of western Japan, Mirasaka Fromage is adding deliciously light and uniquely-flavored cheeses to Japan’s pantry of fermented foods and is also helping to preserve the area's rural way of life by adhering to the ancient, sustainable, and ethical way of using the land by mountain grazing its dairy animals.
At Mirasaka Fromage, Masanori Matsubara and his wife Kunie have been hand-making fresh, soft-ripened, and other cheeses on their farm high in the mountains of Hiroshima prefecture since 2004. It is a small, very traditional family operation in which all of the dairying is done on the farm. The Matsubaras milk their animals in the morning and spend the rest of the day making cheese. When customers stop by to buy their products, they emerge from the creamery in back of the store to take care of them.
Masanori chose to pursue cheese-making over an earlier dream of being a milk dairy farmer in order to ensure, as he says, "a good, more manageable, stress-free life for himself and his family.” The “family” includes ten Brown Swiss cows and fifty Alpine goats with whom the Matsubaras have warm and mutually supportive relationships. Each animal is affectionately named; the cows after European breads like Grissini and Epi, the goats after sweet confections and desserts. (Pictured above with Masanori is the Brown Swiss cow called Kouign-amann after the type of round bread from northern France that is layered with butter and topped with caramelized sugar.)
Masanori takes care not to stress the animals by over-milking, doing so only once a day around 7:00 a.m. when he finds them waiting for him by the barn. He also lets the goats rest during the winter months and only makes fresh goat cheese from March to November each year. All year round the animals are free to roam the farm and graze its meadows and mountain forests because there is always ample fresh vegetation. The pastures are filled with nutritious, mineral-laden sasa and other short bamboo grasses throughout the year and also with the tender, sublimely earthy shoots of giant bamboo in spring, sweet clover in summer, and rich-tasting chestnuts in fall, among many other types of grasses, flowers, herbs, and trees.
Mirasaka Fromage’s animals, in turn, help to maintain the pasture. By trimming the giant bamboo and browsing the trees they expand the pasture's size and create the dappled shade they need to cool themselves during the hot summer months. They also naturally fertilize the land. Most important, they produce exceptional milk; milk with an ethereal freshness and a unique taste of place that the Matsubaras use to make their prize-winning cheeses. In 2013, nine years after the farm was established, Mirasaka Fromage's soft-ripened cow cheese,“Fromage de Mirasaka,” a luscious, buttery, and earthy cheese, took the silver medal in the geotrichum cheese category (the category of white mold-ripened soft cheeses like Brie and Camembert) at the Mondial du Fromage international cheese competition in Tours, France. Two years later, the farm's "Fromage de Mirasaka Chèvre" received the gold medal in the goat cheese category. Inspired by French soft-ripened goat cheeses, it is milder than its cow milk cousin. The rind is thin and fluffy, the cheese inside like cream, and the flavor sweet and silky with the subtlest hint of the citrusy tang that makes goat cheese refreshingly delicious.
While its way of dairying is ancient and very traditional by "Old World" standards, what Mirasaka Fromage does is rare in Japan. It is one of a small, albeit growing, number of artisanal cheesemakers. Most cheese sold in Japan is either imported or is processed cheese made at large commercial farms on the island of Hokkaido. In addition, Mirasaka Fromage has been a pioneer in raising goats and introducing delicious, high-quality, and healthy goat cheese to Japanese consumers. Lastly, by mountain grazing its animals and raising them on pasture and feeding them solely on fresh grass all year round, the Matsubaras are helping to lead a quiet revolution of quality, ethics, and sustainability that is underway in the mountains in western Japan in terms of how land is used, livestock is raised, and animal-based foods are made.
Mountain Grazing—Japan's Grass-fed Revolution
Mirasaka Fromage is named after the nearby village of Mirasaka where Masanori was born and later visited his grandmother during the summers while he was growing up in Osaka. The village, which has since been incorporated into the country town of Miyoshi, is located in a long, wide basin that stretches intermittently through the upper reaches of the mountains of western Japan. It is an area known as Chugoku, or middle country, and comprises the five prefectures of the western portion of the country’s main Honshu Island, including Hiroshima, Okayama, Shimane, Tottori, and Yamaguchi prefectures. It is a rugged region, comprised of irregular rolling hills and steep forested mountains that fall directly into the Sea of Japan on one side and into the Seto Inland Sea on the other.
Unlike other parts of Japan where there are patches of plains along the coast, arable land in Chugoku is mostly confined to its high mountain plateau. It is a fertile area blessed with generous amounts of clean water and a relatively mild winter, and has historically been the food basket of western Japan, producing a variety of richly and uniquely-flavored foods, including rice, soy beans, wheat and other grains, vegetables, and livestock, and also traditional food products like soy sauce, miso, and sake. Even so, the land was under-utilized because of the difficulty farming the mountainous terrain. The situation worsened in the last half of the 20th century, when agriculture and food production declined in the area due to Japan’s shift to large-scale commercial farming in Hokkaido, a rise in cheap imported food, and the abandonment of small, family farms due to the aging population of the countryside.
In 1999, the Japanese government implemented reforms to the country’s basic agriculture law to address these conditions and trends. Specifically, it created incentives to increase the country’s self-sufficiency in livestock feed and to promote natural grazing. Typically, Japan’s livestock are raised in one of two ways, both of which are largely dependent on imported grain. Animals are either raised on the large commercial dairy farms in Hokkaido, where they graze on fresh grass during the summer but are fed grain (mostly imported), hay, and silage during the cold winter months. Or livestock are raised on small farms across Japan, where they are mostly kept in pens and fed only grain (again, largely imported) so that they become the famously fat-marbled varieties of waygu beef.
The agricultural reforms made it attractive for dairy farmers and ranchers to consider utilizing Japan's uncultivated but arable land, like the small abandoned farms in the highlands of Chugoku. The reforms also encouraged ventures that put to use the forested mountains, which cover about 70% of the country and have abundant pasturage but are unsuited to the cultivation of crops. Masanori responded to this challenge by putting into action a plan to become a cheesemaker using milk from animals that grazed naturally on mountain pastures. Dairying is one of the most efficient ways to obtain nutritional value from land. This is especially true of cheese making because it concentrates, as well as preserves, the nourishment of milk. It is also one of the best and oldest ways to productively use marginal land, which is why many of the famous cheese making regions of the world are located in alpine mountains or on hardscrabble farmland.
Masanori's first step was to learn tree husbandry, which he did by working on a tree farm for two years. Next he visited Europe to learn how to make cheese. Finally, he bought an abandoned rice farm outside Mirasaka, cleared the land, and began making cheese five years after the reforms were implemented.
A Unique Taste of Place
The Matsubaras are very good cheesemakers. That is partly because preserving food with salt, then fermenting it with enzymes and bacteria, and lastly aging it to further concentrate and enhance its flavor is almost second nature to food makers in Japan given how many of the country’s traditional foods are fermented. Mirasaka Fromage makes a range of cheeses: fresh soft and fresh firm cheeses, white-mold and washed-rind types of surface-ripened cheeses, and the occasional semi-hard and hard, long-aged cheese. This array reflects Masanori’s ongoing perfection of his craft and experimentation with what style of cheese is best for each type of milk and season. A recent experiment was a washed-rind cheese made with the thicker, earthier, more pungent milk the cows produce in the autumn. The result was a classically meaty, chewy Tallegio type of cheese. Another trial was mascarpone, which missed the mark because it was really butter and reflected the challenge of working with the incredibly rich, protein-laden milk of Mirasaka Fromage’s cows. A resounding success was an aged, semi-hard farmhouse style of cow cheese that has a delicious balance of milky, nutty, earthy flavors and crumbly, creamy texture. It is made plain and also spiked with bits of spicy togarashi red pepper.
The quality and flavor of milk is the key factor in making delicious, fine quality cheeses. Mirasaka Fromage’s Brown Swiss cows and Alpine goats are well-suited to this task, as evidenced by the prize-winning “Mirasaka Fromage” and "Fromage de Mirasaka Chevre” cheeses they helped create. In addition to being gentle, friendly creatures, they are among the best breeds in the world for making cheese because they are good milkers and produce milk that is high in protein. They are also specifically adapted to mountainous conditions and can tolerate weather extremes like Japan's hot humid summers.
Mirasaka Fromage's milk is the taste of the pastures and seasons of western Japan. The purest expression of the milk can be tasted in the pristine flavors of Mirasaka Fromage’s fresh cheese. The inherent sweetness of the cow milk is evident in the Fromage Blanc, which the Matsubaras offer plain or mixed with fresh local fruit. The slightly more fermented Vache Frais (fresh cow cheese) and Chevre Frais (fresh goat cheese) are delicious to sample side-by-side to compare the difference of the underlying milk flavors of the animals. The Vache Frais is a rich, slightly earthy, and grainy cheese while the Chevre Frais is silky smooth and lemony.
Masanori does not waste anything, and he makes a fresh ricotta cheese the way it should be made, with pure whey left over from making cow and goat cheese. No milk or coagulants are added as is the case with many commercial versions, which makes their cheese heavy and cloying. Mirasaka Fromage’s ricotta is a light, moist heavenly pleasure. Mirasaka Fromage also makes a variety of Italian type, stretched-curd cheeses, including a soft mozzarella, a firmer smoked scamorza affumicata, and an aged caciocavallo. There is also a string cheese called Mocheese. While delicious to eat fresh, all are also great cooking cheeses.
Masanori’s passion is goat cheese because of its delicate flavor and health benefits. Goat cheese is lower in fat, calories, and cholesterol than cow cheese. It also has a cleaner and fresher taste while still being full-flavored, rich, and creamy. In addition to the Chevre Frais and "Fromage de Mirasaka Chèvre," Mirasaka Fromage makes several seasonal soft-ripened goat cheeses to showcase the seasonal flavors of the goat milk and also intrigue people into giving goat cheese a try. In spring, when the goat milk is piquant, Masanori makes a goat cheese called "Sakuramochi," which is wrapped in a mountain cherry leaf and accented with a pickled cherry blossom flower. In summer, there is a more traditional type of block-shaped and mellow-flavored goat cheese called "Carre de Lavendar," which is scented with lavender. The soft-ripened goat cheese in autumn is called "Jyukushi-gaki," which means ripe persimmon. Shaped like a persimmon, its rind is washed to give it the orange tint of a persimmon and also a more pungent flavor. It is a thick, rich, creamy cheese that comes wrapped in dried persimmon leaves.
One of Mirasaka Fromage’s newest goat cheeses is a blue cheese called “Heidi.” It is a washed-rind, semi-soft cheese with a lovely orange rind and thin blue vein of mold running through the center. It is the opposite of a salty, rich, crumbly type of blue cheese. Instead, the cheese is dense, yet moist and pliable, and has a delicate nutty, milky flavor that is lightly accented by the umami of the blue mold.
Mirasaka Fromage’s cheeses regularly win prizes in Japanese competitions as well as abroad. Its mozzarella won the Japan Natural Cheese Contest in 2007 and the ricotta and "Heidi" blue goat cheese won Japan Cheese Awards in 2016. The farm’s cheeses are also featured on the menus of the growing number of innovative new restaurants in the region that are assimilating locally-made, foreign ingredients, as well as foreign techniques, into their cooking to create exciting new dishes and a new style of the region’s light, natural yet full-flavored ingredient-based cuisine. These include “Ajikura,” a restaurant in an old sake brewery in the mountain town of Onan in neighboring Shimane prefecture, and “Trattoria M,” which is located in the historic salt-making city of Takehara down the mountain and along the coast of the Seto Inland Sea in Hiroshima prefecture. Mirasaka Fromage’s cheeses are also available at farm-to-table restaurants in Japan’s big cities.
The Matsubaras do not view these successes as ends in themselves. Instead, they are a means to help revitalize their community by drawing attention to well-made local food and by supporting the businesses of their neighbors. For example, because of the popularity of their mozzarella cheese, Masanori now also uses the milk of other artisanal dairy farms in the area to meet demand. The question before the Matsubaras is how big do they want Mirasaka Fromage to become. So far, there is no change in their values, and they want to maintain a “good, manageable life." The only new venture they are considering is to renovate and rent out a nearby farmhouse so that they can share the beauty of their farm and lifestyle with others.
Story & Photos: Tom Schiller
Mirasaka Fromage 三良坂フロマージュ
1617-1 Mirasakacho Nika, Miyoshi, Hiroshima Prefecture 729-4302
Tel: +81 (0824) 44 2773
The farm store at Mirasaka Fromage is open from 10:00 to 17:00 every day except Sundays and holidays. Fresh milk ice cream as well as seasonal cheese are available for purchase. Cheeses can also be bought online from Mirasaka Fromage's website and delivered to anywhere in Japan within a day or two.
Mirasaka Fromage cheeses are also available at a variety of specialty stores in Hiroshima prefecture and Japan's big cities. Two locations with a wide selection of their cheeses are the Michi no eki, or farmers market, in the center of the town of Miyoshi, and at the Hiroshima prefecture "antenna" shop in Tokyo, which is called the TAU Shop and located in the Ginza.
Miyoshi is located roughly in the middle of the Chugoku region and can be reached from several of the area's major cities, such as Okayama, Hiroshima, and Matsue, in one to two hours by car or bus. The lively seaside town of Onomichi in Hiroshima prefecture is only one hour away and is an especially good starting point if you are a cyclist, as the city has become the gateway to cycling in the Seto Inland Sea and Chugoku areas.
Tips for Serving and Eating
Cheese was first introduced into Japan in the late 19th century. Although a latecomer to the Japanese pantry, it is perfectly suited to the style and values of the country’s cuisine. It is a taste of nature: the plants, the seasons, and also the natural process of fermentation. It is a source of light or deeply-rich umami, depending on how long it is aged. It is also eminently practical, being a complete food loaded with protein and other nutrients.
Cheese, in fact, fills in a gap in the nature-oriented Japanese pantry by providing the fermented flavor of the country’s meadows and forests. Other fermented foods are either derived from the sea or farmed fields of rice, beans, and other grains. Or they are single vegetables that have been fermented to be pickles. Cheese is a grassy, fruity, nutty, earthy blend of flavors. Equally important is its creamy texture, which is always satisfying on its own but also very useful in cooking because it helps to prolong and extend the flavors of the other ingredients in a dish.
Mirasaka Fromage’s cheeses are Japanese cheeses. They are natural, light, and have subtle flavors. Because of their youthfulness and the delicacy of their flavors, they should be eaten within the timeframe indicated on their packages. This is especially true for the fresh cheeses. The soft-ripened cheeses can be aged, but they will become earthier and more pungent. The rinds of the soft-ripened cheeses are edible. If they are unappealing, simply cut them off. To serve these cheeses, slice them when they are cold and then let them rest for an hour outside of the refrigerator before eating to enhance their aroma, texture, and taste.
All of Mirasaka Fromage’s cheeses are delicious on their own. They are also great seasoned or used to add flavor to dishes. Try topping any of the fresh cheeses with one of Japan’s artisanal sea salts—a bright, crunchy shinkai deep-sea salt rich in minerals from the Sea of Japan, a rounded, umami-laden moshio seaweed salt from the Seto Inland Sea, or a delicate coral or powdery sea salt from Okinawa. Or drizzle them with an artisanal soy sauce, either a deeply complex aged one or a lighter-bodied refined one that is accompanied by mildly fruity olive oil.
Their uses as ingredients in other dishes are endless and their light flavors make them very versatile when layering umami flavors in a dish. The ricotta is essentially an all-purpose, light, grassy-tasting cream that can be plopped on all kinds of savory dishes or cooked into them. Or it can be eaten drizzled with honey, topped on fresh fruit and desserts, and baked into sweet confections. The mozzarella and other stretched cheeses, as well as the soft-ripened cheeses, are delicious melted. Melt them on deep-fried tofu or inside tofu skins, as well as on bread, pasta, and pizza.
Local Food Adventures
There are many exciting new food developments underway in the Chugoku region. Heirloom foods are being revived and high-quality foreign foods being made locally. Artisanal food makers are reviving traditional food-making practices as well as experimenting with foreign ways in order to make better food (see Farm Suzuki oysters.) In addition, there are many new restaurants cropping up that are offering creative home-style (see Nishino Farmhouse Restaurant), modern Japanese, and new styles of cooking, making a trip through the area delicious, nutritious, and satisfying.
While mountain grazing animals to create more natural, animal-based foods and also provide better lives for the animals is taking place across Japan, Chugoku is leading this trend. Sixth Produce in the town of Onan just over the mountains from Mirasaka in Shimane prefecture is just one among a number of dairies in the area making all-natural, non-homogenized fresh milk and other dairy products. Perhaps more interesting is the effort by ranchers in Chugoku to raise wagyu beef that is pasture-raised and all-grass-fed yet still very tender and richly flavored. Excellent examples are Taoshita wagyu beef being raised in the mountains behind the country town of Takehara in Hiroshima prefecture and Iwami wagyu beef being bred in the town of Onan.
Other food adventures near Mirasaka Fromage including the following:
Started in 1994 as a joint project between Miyoshi City and Japan Agriculture, Miyoshi Winery is building its reputation as a maker of fine and unusual wines featured under the "TOMOE" label. Much of the progress is due to the efforts of head winemaker Naoyuki Ota, who joined five years ago after honing his skills at wineries in New Zealand for fifteen years. All the grapes are grown locally and include a number of varietals unique to Japan, including a Japanese variety of Paeoni, a recently developed hybrid called Shokoshi, which produces wines with intense colors and flavors, and Muscat Bailey, known for producing wines with beautifully fruity aromas and deep red colors but light, crisp flavors. Miyoshi Winery is also known for its four styles of Chardonnay, including a sparkling wine and a very pure, fragrant wine made with grapes harvested at night during a new moon. Often described by foreigners as having a "foxy" flavor, Japanese fine wines, like those of Miysohi Winery, are increasingly being appreciated for their bright, crisp, minerality and the way their acidity pairs well with Japanese food and other ingredient-based styles of cuisine.
Miyoshi Toretta & Cafe
Miyoshi Toretta is the name of the local Michi no eki, or farmer's market. Located on a corner of the town's main crossroad, it combines an exceptional range of fresh local produce and handmade foods with a bakery and cafe that serves lunch. The lunch alone makes it a worthwhile destination. It is a buffet of seasonal dishes using fresh ingredients based on the recipes of local residents. Because a line forms quickly, it is best to get there when the cafe begins serving at 11:00.
In many countries with well-developed food cultures around the world, it still can be hard to find good bread in the countryside, leaving a big hole in an otherwise excellent meal. This is not a problem in Miyoshi because of the delicious, all-natural breads that are hand-made by Yoko and her husband Stefan Mike at Backerei Nagaya. The bakery offers twenty different kinds of bread including a traditional German rye, a soy milk bread, and a vegan bread made without eggs and milk. Opened in 2016, the bakery is housed in a renovated outbuilding on the farm Yoko inherited from her grandmother and to which she returned with the title of bread Meister, or master craftsman, after fourteen years of learning how to make bread in a small town outside of Munich.