Inside the World of Japanese Cheese
Cheese may not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering Japan’s rich culinary traditions—but as Malory Lane, an American expat and the founder of Japan Cheese Co., tells us, it’s part of a growing artisanal movement among regional producers who are finding ways to create experimental, umami-rich cheeses that are wholly Japanese.
You grew up in the U.S. and are now based in the Netherlands. When did you get into the world of cheese, and what initially drew you to Japan?
I was an Asian studies major and straight out of college moved to Japan to teach English. I lived for a couple of years in Niigata, which is the prefecture that’s most famous for having the best rice and sake, because it has some of the purest water in the country. After that, my now-husband and I were traveling quite a bit, and WWOOFing [doing homestays and working on organic farms as part of the organization World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms]. We ended up on a goat farm in the Israeli desert in 2013, and got put in the cheesemaking room—I was so struck by it. It’s fascinating to see a product get made from start to finish. We would take the goats out to the oases in the desert to graze them, bring them back, then feed and milk them, and use that milk to make cheese. It’s really, really moving to see and work with that entire process.
How did you get involved with Japan’s community of cheesemakers, and what led to the start of Japan Cheese Co.?
I had this spark while in Israel, and thought, This is really cool, and I want to keep thinking about this. We moved back to Japan, to Tokyo, in 2016—my husband is a translator—and I was determined to continue exploring the world of cheese. It started by researching where I could find cheese in the city, then finding out that there are cheese shops. There’s one in Tokyo called Cheese No Koe (“The Voice of Cheese”) that only sells Japanese cheese, specifically cheeses from the northern island of Hokkaido. I’d go there and buy cheese, taste it, photograph it, and post it on Instagram between my Japanese classes. That’s when the first [iteration of] Japan Cheese Co. started: as a blog and a project to document my explorations, because I kept finding things that I knew other people didn’t know existed. It caught the attention of the cheese world quite a bit. As my Japanese got better, I met a number of cheesemakers, and also worked at a cheese shop in Tokyo for a year. I held events there, attended cheese awards—I consider myself as an ambassador to the Japanese cheese world.
Can you tell us more about the history and practice of cheesemaking in Japan? I would guess that it’s fairly recent, and likely a factor of globalization.
Globalization had a foot into it, but what most people don’t know is that even in the sixth century, there were cows and a small dairy-making culture in Japan. Most of those were white cows—like the Brahman cow associated with India—and came on the path with Buddhism to Japan. But the first time you really start seeing cheese coming into the Japanese diet is actually after World War II, when the U.S. occupied Japan, and they helped institute a school-lunch program to address malnutrition and food shortages. In it, they included cheese and a little carton of milk. At many Japanese schools, even now, they usually include a piece of cheese and a carton of milk in lunches, and it’ll be locally made. The other historical marker is 1964—the year of the Tokyo Summer Olympics, which saw the first air freight of cheese come in from France, for the French athletes who said they wouldn’t go a month without cheese! [Laughs]
When it comes to regionality, terroir, and technique, how do these elements play out?
There’s not much regionality when it comes to cheese in Japan quite yet—at least not in the same way you see it in other parts of Japanese food culture, mostly because many of the cheesemakers are first-generation.
That said, there are cheesemakers who have become known for certain cheeses and experimenting quite a bit: In Hokkaido, there’s one group that makes a very special raclette, washed in local hot spring water—as opposed to the traditional brine, saltwater solution—that is full of minerals and natural enzymes. When it comes to microorganisms and cultures, there are cheesemakers in Japan who are doing it really uniquely. There’s one maker in Chiba who actually trained as a microbiologist. Years before she started making cheese, she had all these petri dishes of experiments for different cultures. There’s another cheesemaker who collaborates with a local sake brewery—he’ll take a bag of the leftover rice from sake production, and hold it in the milk while it’s fermenting, so a lot of the koji from that will seep into it and create a very different aroma. And then there are a lot of makers who are using what we think of as Japanese ingredients, washing them in umeshu plum wines, Japanese whisky, or wrapping it in shiso leaf, or aging them in different vinegars, like tamari or soy sauce. There’s a really good one out there, a soft cheese that’s wrapped in dried yuzu rinds.
That sounds delicious. Any chance those specialities will be available outside of Japan any time soon?
The thing with Japanese cheese—or at least all of these—is that the best, high-quality, artisanal cheeses are not being exported. Japan Cheese Co. had been working to do that this year, but the coronavirus has closed off a lot of the markets. It will probably be another couple of years, and for now, we’ll be focusing more on the education side of things. I love the juxtaposition that exists between most people’s idea of what Japan is, and what Japanese cuisine is. And then you have Japanese cheese. From a cultural, anthropological perspective, it’s simply fascinating.