February in Japan is a wonderful time. Although I have to admit that it is still pretty cold, there are glimmers of spring and the blossoming of Japanese plum – ume.
Lovely Ume is a delicious and hugely popular fruit in Japan. It’s used in everything – it’s the pinky paste with the tasty tang that you’ll often find atop your bento rice. The Japanese use it in cooking, preserving and (my personal favourite), as a wonderfully sweet and sour alcoholic beverage called Umeshu.
Once the miserable cold and rain has (mostly) subsided, February in Japan is awash with colours as ume trees burst with pink petals. The Japanese have this wonderful connection with nature that’s still honoured in people’s daily lives, something that the UK has unfortunately forgotten, and so this signal of springtime is celebrated with festivals known as ume matsuri. Temples, shrines and parks across the country are inundated with revellers taking in the sweet smell of the stunning ume trees and admiring their pretty little blossoms, that range from bright white to deep fuschia, and almost every shade of pink in between.
Japanese ume is a flavour that is very typical of Japan. It’s not like our western plums and so it’s not often a flavour that many visitors will have come across. This is what makes umeshu special. Much more sour than it’s western counterparts, ume is also abundant in the subtle fifth taste element, umami, which gives us a sensation of savoury goodness and is what makes some of the most delicious foods on the planet so delicious. Think truffle, caviar and dashi. This gloriously intriguing combination is so moreish that the resulting booze just had to be so too.
There are a number of ways to enjoy ume but for me, the stand out product to come from these tasty little fruits has to be umeshu, a drink with unique characteristics and considerable charm. Umeshu is sometimes referred to in English as a ‘plum wine’, but this isn’t strictly true. Rather than fermenting the fruit, umeshu is made by combining slightly unripened ume with sugar and alcohol, usually either Shochu or sake. Brewers slowly mature their umeshu for up to, or even over a year in tanks, where the alcohol extracts all of the flavour characteristics from the fruit leaving a lovely rich amber nectar with a heady aroma and very unique taste. The finished liquid is the perfect balance of sweet from the addition of sugar, and tart from the natural acids in the slightly under-ripe fruit.
Umeshu is a fairly syrupy, rich liqueur which comes from the relatively high sugar content. It’s delicious served on the rocks and I love it in a cocktail, try a bitingly crisp Umeshu Sour for something a little different this weekend!
80ml umeshu (Choya is very easy to come by)
35ml lemon juice
15ml sugar syrup (50% water: 50% sugar)
15ml egg white
Lemon twist or lavender sprig to garnish
Put everything except the garnish in a cocktail shaker, add cubed ice and shake until ice appears on the outside of the shaker. Strain into a large rocks glass, garnish and enjoy!