Hedonism Wines

A Summer of Hedonism

This summer, like many British summers, fizzled out with all the ceremony of a wet party popper.

It left me with a bereft sort of feeling…akin to that when you perform an iOS update for your iPhone and all you get is a free U2 album. Bereft and perplexed.

Weather aside, the summer months were actually incredibly fun. There was that visit from Philip Harper and the various dinners, the International Wine Challenge Public Sake Tasting with an unbelievable amount of trophy winning sake…and then there was that evening where I learnt all about Hedonism.

Behold, London’s Temple to the humble Grape.

Hedonism Wines

I should confess upfront that my understanding of wine is unapologetically linear. Linear to the degree that I can merrily divide the wine world into four kingdoms: Good Red, Bad Red; Good White, Bad White. A fair number of you are falling over in horror at this stage, spilling your glasses of Chateau Lafite across the floor like a murder scene. But I assure you that wine is on my list of things to get to know. (Although if I’m being honest, primarily for the purpose of being better able to benchmark sake).

Fortunately, Hedonism is the kind of place that even non-oenophiles can appreciate, with its tasteful and cavernous interior de luxe. True oenophiles however, will be brought to their knees with euphoria.

Hedonism Wines

A sweeping staircase is the first thing you see as you enter, and the downwards descent is taken directly from the ball scene in Disney’s Cinderella. The temperature has dropped a few degrees cooler. Amber, ruby, deep sapphire and rose…jewel coloured bottles stretch into the horizon, each resting snugly in its designated shelf space. It’s quiet. The silence is only broken by the deliberate footsteps of suited customers, intently searching for the one.

Hedonism Wines

Hedonism Wines

In short, Hedonism is the home of fine wine in London. But it also purveys plenty of the other fine and wicked things in life, including spirits, glassware thin as soap bubbles, and of course, sake.

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Sake Shelf at Hedonism

Pairing events often take place here, usually in the downstairs ‘cellar’. Tonight, we have gathered for six Mediterranean style mini-bites, paired with six special types of sake. The theme: Seasonal Sake, chosen to showcase the best of summer’s ingredients.

Each pairing was carefully curated by Honami Matsumoto, who in her previous incarnations worked as Head Sommelier at Nopi (with a wine list that was shortlisted for Imbibe’s Wine List of the Year), as a Wine and Sake Specialist at Hedonism and is a Certified Sake Level III Sake Educator by the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET). (She continues to offer event organising services under House of Sake). By putting Japanese sake to work in unfamiliar contexts, such as non-Japanese cuisines, this masterclass demonstrated sake’s underrated versatility and  turned old conventions on their head with grace and finesse.

Summer Sake at Hedonism

Five of the six Sake we tried, from left: Masumi Arabashiri; Shirakabegura Muroka Daiginjo Genshu; Katsuyama Lei Sapphire Label; Ikekame Turtle Black; Ume no Yado Yuzu. Missing: Mio Sparkling

First came the palate opener of prosciutto wrapped melon and mint, paired with sparkling sake by Mio (see Hedonism). This was a unanimous hit, a mix of sweet bubbles from the sake, wafer thin saltiness and yielding melon flesh. The champagne like fizz of the poured sake heralded the start of a fine evening ahead.

Mio sake

Second came bruschetta two ways: Cherry tomato on the one, and caramelised red onion and Gorgonzola Dolce on the other. Both tomato and cheese are sake friends, being rich in “savoury deliciousness”, or umami. I rather enjoyed Honami’s description of the sake and cheese friendship also stemming from their shared “moldiness”. This course was paired with a Nama Genshu (meaning raw and undiluted), named Masumi Arabashiri Junmai Ginjo. This particular sake was chosen for its higher levels of sweetness and acidity, with the aim of bringing out the flavours of caramelised onion.

Hedonism Wines Sake Class

Tomato was to play a dominant role in this evening’s theatre of food and drink, featuring twice more in close succession. First, a petit bowl of gazpacho was paired with a genshu (meaning undiluted) named Shirakabegura Muroka Daiginjo Genshu. The Sake’s smell was highly distinctive, akin to that of exotic white flowers. I took this as an opportunity to test whether I could indeed detect the difference between Nama Genshu and Genshu. An experiment which left me feeling slightly despondent, but which can only be interpreted as a call for more Sake drinking.

Gazpacho at Hedonism Wines

Next the Burrata, peach, tomato and basil salad with aged balsamic vinegar, which came paired with Katsuyama Lei Junmai Ginjo Sake. Let us just pause here and give both elements the appreciation that they both individually warrant.

Burrata at Hedonism

First the burrata. There are many grades of burrata, ranging from that which resembles a white rubber puck, to that which is gorgeously white and soft, and bleeds when you cut it. Tonight’s burrata were decidedly of the bleeding sort, requiring consumption with a spoon. Each majestically pale celestial body came enshrined on its own little constellation – meaty chunks of tomato, delicate peach and vividly fragrant basil.  Because the body is a temple, n’est-ce que pas?

As I sat back and observed, I felt rather moved by the way the delicate cheeses disgorged their inner creaminess, and the greedy slurping this invoked. All things considered, this course was a hit.

Fun fact: burrata is apparently a mozzarella pouch that has been stuffed with cream and other leftover scraps of mozzarella. A pure dose of heart attack, delivered straight from a water buffalo’s milk pail straight to you.

And then the Sake. Katsuyama Lei is in fact one of my favourite Sake to drink, both for the story behind its production, and its flavour and aroma. Just imagine the taste of the best peach in the world, and what it would smell like…and this brings you something close to Katsuyama Lei. Supposedly, this is achieved through the assiduous polishing of the sake rice into diamond shapes, which also explains the premium price tag (c. £56 at Hedonism).

Katsuyama Lei

The fifth course demontrated the ability of certain sakes to hold up well with meatier fare, with its extremely welcome ability to cut through grease without astrigency. The chosen sake, Ikekame Turtle Red Junmai Daiginjo (see sake lineup photo above), also possessed a red berry kind of smell, playing upon the sherry and vinegar dressing in course five’s “Oven-roasted chicken wings with garlic”.

And finally we were in the home stretch.

If our final pairing had a name it would be

Amalfi.

Hedonism

Waxy lemons and a pastel hued sake liqueur, richly evocative of Mediterranean summer nights. Another familiar Sake friend too – Yuzu by Ume no Yado brewery – which you can read more about here.

Not much more for me to say here, save that Sicillian lemon cheesecake paired with a sweet liqueur tends to speak for itself. (Cheesecake courtesy of the English Cheesecake Company).

Sicillian lemon cheesecake

The rest of the evening is spent in a warm haze of satisfaction, strolling through the different chambers of luxury. Each alcove his its own little delight, not least the famous room of many hands, each cradling a bottle of something priceless:

Hedonism

Hedonism

 

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Hedonism

Outside it’s raining. I navigate towards the tube station, side stepping puddles filled with the sheen of gasoline rainbows. I’m smiling though, as I remember the line written at the bottom of my tasting sheet:

“I can resist everything except temptation.”

Oscar Wilde

*

Honami holds frequent tasting classes at Hedonism. Her next class is already sold out, but you can read more about it in my next post, and be notified of future tastings here.

All Sakes mentioned in this article are available to purchase at Hedonism Wines:

Mio, by Shochikubai

Arabashiri, by Masumi

Shirakabegura Muroka, by Shochikubai

Lei Sapphire, by Katsuyama

Turtle Red, by Ikekame

Yuzu, by Ume no Yado

Sake, Fashion and the Four Seasons

Sake is always good, so to serve it for a good cause surely makes it greater.

Last Friday, good drink was united with a good cause at the British Red Cross’ inaugural Good Look Fashion Show, organised by the Young Tiffany Circle. For one night, the grand ballroom at the beautiful Four Seasons Hotel was taken over by 200 special guests, models and racks and racks of gorgeous clothes to raise funds for the charity.

Backstage

Photo credits: www.aireye.co.uk. Backstage

Nicky Clarke

Nicky Clarke in action. Photo credits: www.aireye.co.uk

Backstage

Photo credits: www.aireye.co.uk
Backstage

A fantastic event in itself, made a little bit more special by our sake. On the night, guests had the chance to enter our raffle: for £10 a play, two lucky entrants would be in with the chance to win a box of 12 premium sake each, totaling over £600 in value. As a deal sweetener, every entrant was given a complimentary glass of sake with a free flow top up policy.

Sake for two, for charity too! That’s what you call an offer that you can’t refuse.

What we drank:

Urakasumi Zen, Haku Boten and Urakazumi Umeshu and a whole lot more.

Urakasumi masu

sake

Photo credits: www.aireye.co.uk

sake

Photo credits: www.aireye.co.uk

 

The Rest

The rest of the evening involved an elegant drinks reception, where guests were served with sparkling pink champagne and floral trays of dainty canapés. Arancini turns into something much more desirable than arancini, when you embed it in a bouquet of flowers.

Arancini canapes

 

With everyone in high spirits, the lights were dimmed and guests were ushered into the grand Ballroom for the evening’s main event. Goodybags for everyone of course, involving the very natural combination of Grazia magazines, popchips, nail polish and fruit bar.

Photo credits: British Red Cross

Photo credits: www.aireye.co.uk

One by one, models in luxurious textiles swanned past an enraptured audience, sporting designs generously donated by Amanda Wakeley, PPQ, Erdem and other homegrown London designers. My particular favourite was this confectionery creation, by couture designer Dar Sara:

Dar Sar Couture Dress

Copyrights 2014 , Jef Anog

Excitement in the room reached a whole new level once the live auction began. Runway looks were raffled off to ferocious bidding, along with an 18ct white gold and diamond pendant from Boodles, a private wine tasting with the Chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine and a VIP experience at the Nicky Clarke Mayfair salon, worth £1,000. Nicky claims that he has auctioned these off at £29,000 before.

Nicky Clarke

Photo credits: www.aireye.co.uk. Nicky Clarke takes to the auction floor.

Nicky Clarke

Photo credits: www.aireye.co.uk
The raffle.

To finish off the evening, the lucky raffle prize winners were drawn and two very satisfied guests taxied home that evening, each 12 bottles of sake the richer.

Kanpai!

Kanpai with sake

Photo credits: British Red Cross

Photo credits: British Red Cross

Special thanks to Rie Yoshitake for her generous sake sponsorship once again.

PS – I hear that sake is really going places. Ollie at Tengu Sake kept guests at the Louis Vuitton party well watered with a generous flow

Sake: from the front line

I don’t know how I feel about Wednesdays.

Usually what happens by the third weekday is that one half of my brain gives up, whilst the other half starts to attempt forward time travel to Friday.

Wednesday sits pathetically between the bookends of a week's beginning and end, apologetically impeding one’s swift exit to Saturday. Once I cross this mysterious threshold however, my heart begins to feel immediately lighter. Friday practically is the weekend. And Thursday is the day before Friday.

Suffice it to say, I am unaccustomed to the practice of "looking forward to Wednesday".

However, following this Wednesday’s events, I am launching a wholesale review of this attitude. April 29th had been ring-fenced in my diaries - iCal, Gmail, outlook, hardcopy - for a while, for the British Sake Association had sent news of a very interesting talk on sake.

 

The Talk

Sake: from the front line

Oliver Hilton-Johnson, owner of sake importing company Tengu Sake, had brought back goodies from Japan. He was also going to give a talk on his experiences. There would be sake.

It is in my nature to be suspicious of group lecture/ study events, but also in my nature to never refuse a sake tasting. So on Wednesday, I made my way to The Royal Asiatic Society -  a hop, skip and a jump from Euston Square Station - curious and intellectually thirsty.

The evening began with a presentation from Ollie, accompanied by some sake to enhance our audio-visual processing capabilities, followed by lovingly made yakitori, sushi and more sake. In 1.5hrs we covered a lot of material, so I present some highlights to share with you.

 

Hayashi Honten Brewery

Ollie had just returned from a 2 week sake internship at Hayashi Honten brewery, one of the breweries from which he imports. Founded 1920, the brewery is based in Gifu prefecture in what appeared to be fairly urban surrounds from Google Satellite images. There's a great map on Tengu Sake's website which shows the locations of all the breweries from which Ollie imports. Here's a close up of Gifu Prefecture:

 

Gifu map

 

Hayashi Honten

 

The urbanisation of the brewery's location surprised me, as I always imagined that something as romantic as a sake brewery would be most suitably located at the top of a fat, fluffy cumulonimbus, surrounded by mountains and sage men practicing calligraphy. What urban areas do have that clouds don’t, however, is secure access to good water. Breweries need good water in vast quantities, hence the co-location.

My favourite thing about Hayashi Honten is that it is run by one very capable Hayashi-san, who happens to be a woman.

How rare - in this industry as in any other industry. You’ve heard a lot by now of how female presence at the top of the food chain has quantifiable benefits for a company’s success, but hear this word of corroboration: one of the first things that Hayashi-san did was to institute a more humane work/life balance at the brewery. Some breweries ask workers nothing less than to work, live, eat, sleep onsite.

Hayashi-san instead preferred to implement a 07:00 – 18:00 schedule, with an hour for lunch in the middle!! I’ll say no more.

Ollie and Hayashi Honten brewers

The brewers of Hayashi Honten. Hayashi-san, centre right. Ollie, centre.

 

Brewery Tour

We were shown a virtual tour of the brewery. Again, in my wildest imaginings of what a Japanese brewery would look like, I never imagined that it would be possible for everything to be conducted in only 2 to 3 main rooms.

Hayashi Honten seemed to contain its operations to one main colder room (7 C), one hotter room upstairs (35 C) and one ante room (where bottling and labelling was conducted). The staff travelled between these rooms like worker bees, diligently back and forth, their rhythms only punctuated by the frequent changing of slippers between rooms.

(When I first came to the UK, I was appalled at the way outdoor shoes would be worn straight into the house – and even the bedroom! I still cannot comprehend why people here don’t understand my angst. Where is the hygiene? Where is the respect?)

Upstairs, Downstairs at Hayashi Honten

Upstairs, Downstairs at Hayashi Honten

 

Sake Brewing – the (figurative) sweat that goes into the sake

The meat of the lecture was devoted to describing a day in the life of a sake brewer. A sake brewer's day is busy, involves a lot of washing, rice handling and temperature changes. But if there's one thing you need to know, it is that sake brewing is hard. 

The hypothetical schedule ran something like this:

07:00                   Arrive ready to work

10:00 - 10:30     Break

13:00 -14:00       Lunch hour

16:00 – 16:30     Break

18:00                    End of working day.

According to Ollie, mornings tended to be very structured, with all activities pre-planned and delegated using the "Master Plan" (an arcane grid filled with neat Kanji).

Then depending on whether it was peak brewing season, afternoons could be more flexible. Ollie had arrived quite late in the brewing season, when production was winding down and most of the sake was already in the maturation tanks; this allowed for more flexibility.  Afternoon activities involved tasks that had to be executed everyday (koji checking, refrigeration of koji, washing, pasteurising, bottle labelling, chemical analysis) and activities that only needed occasional tending to. At peak time on the other hand, everything would be highly regimented.

Ollie spreads out the rice to cool

Ollie spreads out the rice to cool

 

 

Koji

One last word on Koji.

Aspergillus oryzae. It is the little mold God that determines a sake's major qualities, its depth and amino acidity. A petulant little baby God, which needed to be sauna-ed, massaged, swaddled in muslin and carried around, several times a day. It also carries out the crucial role of breaking down the rice starch into sugars (saccharification), in order that the yeast can ferment it into alcohol.

From Ollie’s account, it is clear that the brewers devoted a large part of their day to tending to it. Looking back through my notes, about 70% of what I jotted down related to the tending of koji!

Koji wrapped in muslin

Koji wrapped in muslin

 

Sake

I’m sure this is what you really wanted to read about. Ever heard of the saying, "stay for a drink, stay for two"?

Or eleven, since eleven is the number of  different sakes that were on display. Here are two that deserve a special mention:

Sky Warrior

Otherwise known as "Seku Honjozo Karakuchi". A Honjozo sake from Hayashi Honten brewery. Official notes:

15% ABV. A fragrant, peppery and zesty sake, clean fresh and yeasty with a lively dry finish. A good match with strong-tasting foods that have one or two dominant flavours and are not too greasy or creamy. It also pairs well with salty, peppery or even spicy dishes. Examples could include grilled (peppered) steak, salted calamari, grilled chicken with a simple sauce, peppered crab or spicy squid.
Honjozo Karakuchi
 

Akazake

The name “Akazake (red sake)” refers to its colour. This was a first for me, not knowing that sake could come in such a hue.

Akazake red is not the strong red that we apply to our beloved London buses, but a sister shade to brandy perhaps. (No decent images sadly, but a Google search gives you the right idea).

Where does the red come from?

Most sakes are pasteurised for sterilization, but Akazake uses wood ash. Wood ash is added to the sake before pressing, neutralising the acidity of the sake.  This particular Akazake speciment came from "kumamoto-ken Shuzo Kenkyujo" or "Kumamoto Research Centre".  Akazake is particular to Kumamoto and was the original style made there until 1909.

 

After a merry evening spent learning about sake and the process, I can only recommend the course. If you wish to learn a bit more about the subject, give it a try! The level is accessible and the speaker well-informed. Now that I know how much human labour goes into creating each drop of sake, I cannot help but be sympathetic to the price, and appreciate every sip more.