In Pursuit of Purity and Tradition
I’m greeted by Yasu Kakegawa in person in front of Patisserie Tomo, in the 1st Arrondissement in Paris. Romain must still be out, preparing dorayaki at the restaurant nearby, they order some from us every day, he says. He welcomes me inside.
While I’m getting seated, he disappears into the more intimate area of the rather small room. A few moment later he comes back with a sleek wooden tray, on which he placed four yunomis. Without saying a word, but a constant, natural smile on his face, he tells me he’ll prepare me some of his new findings of the season. He delicately places the stems in a beautiful brown kyusu, ornamented with golden veins running on its surface. In my family, we are avid Japanese green tea drinkers, and have spent much time studying the differences between different teas and infusion techniques. I quickly notice the originality of the kyusu. These are hand-crafted, I’ve found them in Tokoname, a city located on the western coast of western coast of the Chita Peninsula, he proudly says. Can you guess what these golden details are?, he asks me with a slightly challenging look. I gave you a hint! I examine the flat ceramic vessel closer, but I don’t have an answer. Those are algae, he softly says and pours me a cup of green torrefied tea.
How did you end up working with tea?
In Japan, tea is part of our daily routine. I became sensible to aromas and tastes through my family, this has vastly shaped all my future activities. When I first came to France, I discovered the world of oenology. I learned the process of wine making, and quickly discerned a parallel with tea. All the steps of growing and producing tea are so complex, and the knowledge of it remains still today undisclosed. This made me curious. Sometimes you can see tea plantations, not far from the mount Fuji, and in the South as well, filled with rich green Camellia leaves. Aside from that, most people ignore how tea is the prepared and transformed in all different kind, whether is green, torrefied, or matcha powder tea. So little by little, I started investigating. I’m also very gourmand (he laughs), so I decided to study cooking and pastry. Gradually, many Japanese restaurants and stores found their way to Paris, and I worked at Palais des Thés for some time. It helped me understand tea, and very soon I started making my own selections.
He asks me if I like my tea. I do. I realize that this isn’t something I have tasted before, and ask him where it comes from.
My selection is solely based on the first flush (first crop of the year), as I do my best to offer only high quality teas. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the most expensive. It’s a shame that so many are ready to pay for trends, like for instance iced tea. It may taste like tea, but there have countells chemical compounds and added flavors in them, that is has nothing to do with real tea. The dermining part is to find an excellent cultivator. It’s a very demanding craftsmanship. You have to work real hard and to have good knowledge of the plant, and its development. Of course, there are plenty of big houses with big names, but most of their products have little taste, no caracter. And on the other side, you have those who work for quality, and it’s a very time-consuming process.
The average age of a cultivator in Shizuoka, a region where half of the tea plantations come from, is somewhere around 70. Some are even older, and really struggle to earn a living. Luckily, the are some younger cultivators who stepped up. For instance, one of teas we offer is Kondo-wase. It’s a fairly young cultivator, he’s around 45. Younger craftsman than that is an exception. I’m a bit frustrated by this reality. Many of colutivators are preoccupied for the future. One of them once told me that not far from Kyoto, a region that is impregnated by the tradition of tea, elementary school introduced special tea classes. They take children to plantations, show them how cultivators work, because more than half of households don’t own a kyusu anymore. They drink tea from plastic bottles, like other soft drinks.
Words & Visuals: Marie Boyard