This month, we’re looking at all that is umami; the mysterious ‘fifth taste’ that underlies so much of what we seek out in delicious dining worldwide. Despite the term being coined by Japanese Professor Kikunae Ikeda last century, it’s something that chefs and producers across the globe have been drawn to for millenia. In Italy specifically you’ll find it in abundance in Parmigiano Reggiano and tomatoes, and further afield in cured meats, mushrooms, tea, kimchi, anchovies and more.
Umami is, of course, the essence of Japanese cuisine. In its purest form you find kombu dashi, the liquid stock made from kombu (kelp seaweed) and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes). However it’s also much more than this. In this issue of Luxeat, we’ve also taken a look at umami in a western context.
We speak to Riccardo Sanchez, one of the finest Jamon Iberico artisans there is, about how the presence of umami is what makes their slow cured ham so irresistible. With roughly four years of ageing in the optimum conditions, and the finest quality Iberian pork meat, Arturo Sanchez jamons are naturally packed with the complex savoury flavours of umami.
We also head to the Spanish coastline to speak with César and José Luis Iglesias of El Capricho, a revolutionary anchovy business which again practices slow, low-intervention maturation to minimise salt while maximising umami.
In Portugal, one revolutionary tea grower is bringing the principles of Japanese green tea plantations to her family home. In “Green Tea & Umami: the Extraordinary Journey of Green Tea from Japan to Portugal, with Nina Gruntkowski and Chá Camélia”, we explore green tea’s pure and exceptionally high umami levels, learning about the natural shading and biodynamic practices Nina follows to achieve this.
Finally, sake sommelier Pablo Alomar Salvioni is sharing with us his favourite sakes, which have most umami.
What is Umami, anyway?
A single word holds the key to the magic to so much of what we understand about the world of taste and flavour today – Umami. But what is this famous fifth taste, where do we find it, and why is it that we can’t get enough of it?
In 1908, Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University discovered an unidentified taste in kombu dashi (which we’ll come on to later); something not accounted for by any combination of the basic tastes of sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. He correctly identified the source of this taste as a chemical called glutamate. The taste itself, he simply dubbed “Umami.”
Green Tea & Umami: the Extraordinary Journey of Green Tea from Japan to Portugal, with Nina Gruntkowski and Chá Camélia
Umami is synonymous with Japan in many ways, in everything from their cuisine to their tea ceremonies, but there’s no reason the illusive ‘fifth taste’ can’t be produced in other countries too. This was exactly the thought that struck journalist Nina Gruntowski one day, when she discovered that green tea could be successfully grown in the Northern Portuguese climate, known as the “land of camellias”. Nina is now pioneering Portuguese tea growing with the Chá Camélia project, which she launched together with her partner, Dirk Niepoort, in 2012. She has a hectare of tea plants growing in Fornelo, Vila do Conde, which she grows according to biological and biodynamic principles.
Umami and Iberico Ham, as told by Ricardo Sanchez
In part of our series umami from around the globe, we have the pleasure of speaking with Ricardo Sanchez, who is gradually taking over the family business from his father Arturo. The term umami is closely related to pure, acorn-fed Iberico Jamon. As a family business, Arturo Sanchez have followed the same traditional methods for generations, refusing to cut corners or expand as so many of their competitors become more industrial. The result is a truly stunning product, a result of time and love throughout the Iberico pigs life and the lengthy curing process. One of the leading authorities on Iberico ham, Ricardo sheds light on what makes their ham so unique.
Salty and packed with umami – El Capricho anchovies
Salty and packed with umami, these tiny fish add an intense meatiness to a variety of dishes. To taste a truly exquisite anchovy though makes the supermarket equivalent pale into insignificance.
El Capricho produce just such anchovies in Santoña, Cantabria – a small town on the coast of northern Spain with a seafaring tradition. The company started 27 years ago as something of a passion project, with the aim of going back in time and recovering the almost forgotten wisdom – a tradition that had been buried by years of misunderstood progress. To rediscover what an exceptional anchovy must be, we speak with César and José Luis Iglesias, sons of “Chevi” Iglesias, who founded El Capricho 27 years ago.
Finding Umami in Sake: Six of the Best
Throughout this series, we’ve delved into the world of Umami – the indescribable fifth flavour – which was discovered in Japan by Professor Ikeda in 1908. To put it simply, when something is really tasty and delicious, it’s very often the case that it’s got umami in it. Scientifically, these are identified by chemicals (Alanine, Aspartic Acid, Glutamine, etc.) which can be mimicked in the well-known additive MSG. This savoury richness is the foundation of a lot of Japanese cuisine, but it doesn’t stop there: the nation’s favourite alcoholic drink sake is also known to have high levels of umami.
“Pasta tour de force” in Bologna and its region
Follow a trail of the most important trattorias around Bologna, learn how to make tortellini at the legendary institution, taste exceptional Italian vintage wines, regional produce and much more.
This June, Luxeat brings a chance to get into the belly of Italy – the gastronomic region of Emilia Romagna – with a three day culinary extravaganza. The city of Bologna is known as La Grassa, the culinary capital of Italy and home to many of its most famous dishes. Above all, it is known worldwide for tortellini, the delicate hand-rolled pasta parcels made by “nonne” in the same way for generations. The trip will showcase the best of what this part of Italy has to offer.
Discover and celebrate the masterpieces of global cuisine… in a box
Luxeat’s mission – to track down the culinary forerunners, the shokunin, the artisans, and those rightly celebrated with Michelin stars – is now packaged into a box. The first edition of The Artisans’ Box is launched as an exclusive limited edition. Your numbered box includes the fruit of years of research and relationships-building, a curated mix of complementary ingredients, each considered by Luxeat to be the world’s best-in-category.
The Artisans’ Box is a palatable narrative that tells of a culinary adventure, as imagined by Luxeat’s Aiste Miseviciute.
We will donate 20€ per box for the first 50 boxes to World Central Kitchen, which is serving fresh meals to Ukrainian families fleeing home as well as those who remain in the country.
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French winemakers fan flames to save 2022 crop
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Five of France’s new Michelin foodie hotspots
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Japan meets Portugal
This March, we hosted a very special six day culinary tour to Porto, where we celebrated the fascinating and often unexpected links between Japanese and Portuguese food. We indulged in seafood dinners, Edo-style sushi, port tasting, suckling pig feast and the best of Porto’s street food… before culminating in a show-stopping dinner with chefs Vasco Coelho Santo and Tiago Cardoso da Silva to celebrate the unique union of two culinary powerhouses.