In a hotel room overlooking the 18th hole of the St Andrews Old Course, at the stroke of midnight on Hogmanay 2010 my girlfriend and I raised our glasses and so brought to an end a journey that had begun a year and a half earlier in Hiroshima.
Ordinarily you’d see in the New Year with some whisky or champagne but this year was different; for that we had a sushi chef named Nobu to thank. His restaurant near the Peace Park in the infamous southern city of Japan came highly recommended. We’d been told that the food was superb and the proprietor was a friendly sort who spoke English. We’d been undersold on both counts as the sushi and Nobu’s company exceeded our already lofty expectations. He had lived and worked in California and this was reflected in the fusion style of the food. It was, quite simply, sensational and local flavour came courtesy of the native conger eel. As good as it was, memories of the sushi weren't all that preoccupied us. As the bells chimed, we were excited about the drink in our glasses: a sweet plum liquer called Umeshu, made by our own fair hands and the product of many months of effort and patience. We were finally about to taste our homemade batch for the first time.
These days we expect and demand food from all over the world as de rigeur. I live in Glasgow but meals of indigenous origin tend not to make up a large part of my diet (insert your own deep fried Mars Bar joke here if you must). I’m grateful for that as in a regular week I can expect to digest food and drink that originated in India, Italy, Holland, Korea, Thailand, America and many other places besides. It’s great that once exotic, rare and often perplexing foods are now so accessible yet no matter how small the culinary world gets and no matter how experimental our domestic palettes get, there’s always something new and exciting to be discovered in the food and drink of a foreign land.
Like most people, my own tastes have been broadened by the places I’ve been. I remember having my mind blown by pear cider and cloudberry jam in Stockholm before these became widely available over here. When asked by a barman what type of lager I’d prefer I'd always seek out the Staropramon or Krusovice after acquiring a taste for them in Prague. I’d never had calzone before I visited Verona but now it’s my default option in any Italian restaurant. Travel offers such a great chance to revise your opinions about the produce of your homeland; the cliché about Scots abroad craving Irn-Bru rings true but perhaps the most astonishing discovery I’ve made was finding out that Tennent’s Super is the drink of choice among the hipsters and glitterati in the style bars of Milan. It was prettily packaged and creatively marketed but I doubt it would have been as popular had the Milanese been aware that in its origin country it’s drunk primarily by alcoholics and the homeless.
However, and I’m sure I’m not alone here, whilst I’d eaten in Japanese restaurants nothing could have prepared me for the gastronomic revelations of my first trip to The Land of the Rising Sun. Drinking miso soup and trying to grapple with unidentified vegetables at breakfast in a smart hotel offered the first awakening for my western tastebuds. When I spotted flaming chicken hearts on the menu at a restaurant on our first night in Tokyo the tone was set for the best few eating weeks of my life. More than any other journey before, my culinary discoveries in Japan were to stay with me on my return home. There’s always joy in the extraordinary and a 6am breakfast of freshly caught fish at the famous Tsukiji seafood market was a real highlight. Even the seemingly mundane had the potential to delight. I was rarely without a packet of the chocolate covered biscuit sticks called Pocky after first buying them at Kyoto train station. I brought some home with me and gave them to a chosen few; given the addictive nature of the snack I thought it would be cruel to get people started on them without a readily available British supply. In the end I needn’t have worried as Pocky soon became available in the UK as Mikado.
For my girlfriend, Japan could keep its Pocky, its flaming chicken hearts and its seafood. For her nothing could come close to Umeshu in her affections. She isn’t a big drinker, despite the fact that she is currently working her way through a stash of silky smooth Lithuanian vodka bought on a trip to Vilnius, but Umeshu was the tipple she’d been waiting for all her life. Luckily enough, Nobu was something of an authority on the sweet plummy elixir and as I ordered another Yebisu beer he directed Laura towards the Umeshu Rokku (on the rocks) and the rest is history. Some might say it’s a bit of a girl's drink but I like an Old Fashioned or a Rusty Nail as much as the next boozebag and I must admit it is pretty awesome. It’s really sweet, not too potent (about 15% abv) and fairly viscous which is why it’s best served on ice. Its versatility means it can be used in cocktails, in soda water or tonic or even be mixed with hot green tea in the winter. As for us, we were more than happy with our Umeshu Rokku. Our enthusiasm pleased Nobu who went on to tell us how easy it was to make yourself and how to concoct all sorts of variations. With us being Scottish he took delight in describing how he preferred to make it with scotch as opposed to the traditional sochu or sake. After a couple more glasses and some gentle persuasion from our generous host it was decided that we would attempt our own batch.
A month later, with the instruction we’d received from Nobu and a little online research, we were ready to put our moonshine masterplan into action. The basics couldn’t be simpler: soaking unripe ume plums in sugar and liquor. Having bought a couple of preserving jars on eBay we hit something of a brick wall: where were we going to get ume from? Ume are green Japanese plums, similar to apricots. Their distinctive flower (plum blossom) is commonly depicted in East Asian painting but try as we might we couldn’t source the real thing for love nor money. A compromise had to be made. The closest we could get was unripe yellow plums so we bought them and hoped for the best. Next we washed them, then gently removed their stems. Ideally, a bamboo stick should be used for this but we didn’t have one handy so improvised using tweezers. Then we dried and placed them in separate jars before covering them in sugar followed by Jim Beam in one jar and vodka in the other. The jars were then sealed and placed in a cool dark place (my hall cupboard) and the waiting game began.
Initially, nothing much seemed to happen. Then some of the plums began to rise and over time they changed colour from green to squidgy brown while the liquid became more syrupy as the sugar dissolved. It was a fascinating process and we checked on our precious jars more often than was strictly necessary over the subsequent months. It should be ready for quaffing after three but it's best left for at least a year. We decided not to bow to our impatience and with some difficulty opted for the latter option.
As we watched the fireworks from our hotel room in St Andrews with a little taste of Japan in our glasses I knew we’d made the right choice. It was better than we’d dared hope and we enjoyed the fruits of our labour with friends and family in the days that followed. Our bottles soon ran dry and as they did so I like to think that somewhere in Hiroshima old Nobu was kicking back with a smile on his face and a nice big glass of his scotch based Umeshu. Kampai.
Simple Umeshu recipe:
1lb green plums (preferably Japanese ume)
3/4lb raw sugar
1L alcoholic spirit of your choice
Wash plums and remove the stems. Dry with clean towel. Place plums in a large glass jar, put sugar over them and pour over alcohol. Seal the jar and store it in a dark, cool, and dry place. Umeshu will be ready for drinking in a couple of months but best to let it mature at least one year.
Written by Chris Cruickshank.
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