Editor’s note: Hokkaido is attracting attention for its world-class food items. This series introduces readers to delicious foods from the northern Japan island and the people there who grow these wonderful products. The series appears every other Saturday.
A dairy cattle barn in the town of Shintoku, central Hokkaido, surprisingly emits no offensive odor, and a tunnel leading to an aging room for cheese is not filled with the pungent smell of mold, either.
It's part of the Kyodo Gakusha stockbreeding cooperative, one of the most well-known natural cheese manufacturers in Japan, having won awards at a number of contests both domestically and overseas.
“Co-workers’ school,” which the name literally means, was started in 1979 by Nozomu Miyajima, the 62-year-old president of the company, and his six colleagues with just six cows. It now has 70 workers and as many as 120 cattle.
“At the initial stage, we tried to make cheese good enough to compete with the top foreign producers, but we are now at a stage where we can just focus on our original products,” Miyajima said.
Inside the cheese factory, fresh milk streams via gravity along sloped pipes from the milking shed, located just 23 meters away.
“This setting is ideal for retaining the quality of milk,” said Tomoya Terao, the 37-year-old chief of the cheese factory.
The workers at Kyodo Gakusha are devoted to the proper handling of perishable dairy products as well as hygiene.
To produce a delicious cheese that emits a subtly sweet aroma, they pay maximum attention to controlling the temperature of the milk and fostering ideal levels of microbial activities, as well as spending hours cleaning equipment.
The company draws young recruits from around Japan who want to study the secrets of cheese making. As a social enterprise, it also employs physically and mentally handicapped workers.
As the production of natural cheese in Hokkaido rises, the number of cheese makers has doubled over the past decade to surpass the 100 mark.
As 90 percent of these manufacturers are small or family-run entities, Miyajima now aspires to create a “Hokkaido regional brand cheese” by setting common criteria for production methods and hygienic controls that meet global standards.
He also wants to establish a common taste chart for their products, which would inform consumers about the taste characteristics of products before purchasing.
Once a Hokkaido brand is established, even the smallest family-run farms could sell cheese under the brand in larger markets, Miyajima said.
The effort to jointly create a Hokkaido brand cheese, however, has proven difficult because the flavors of cheese differ greatly depending on climatic differences.
Previously, Miyajima and five local cheese makers, who support his ideal of creating Hokkaido brand cheese, produced samples of the brand cheese.
Even though they had agreed on characteristics of the product’s flavor and used the same manufacturing method, the cheeses turned out completely different from each other, Miyajima recalled in amusement.
“I still believe we can eventually produce cheese products that uniformly share the fertile flavor of Hokkaido,” he said.
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