Staycation 2021 – Day 5 (Dojima Sake Brewery, Fordham Abbey)

Monday, 21st September 2021 – Dojima Sake Brewery

Did you know that sake is now brewed in the UK? No? Nor did we until a couple of weeks ago, when I was hunting around for interesting places to visit on our staycation. It looked intriguing, and was over the same direction as Ely. We were going to Ely on the Monday because the cathedral was one of the few things open on Monday so it was scheduled for that day. So, as it turned out, was a new event at the brewery, a full moon viewing with sake tasting and a meal. I booked there and then, and so instead of heading home at the end of the afternoon, we headed out into the Fens, looking for Fordham Abbey and the Dojima Sake Brewery.

As you may, or may not, know, sake is made from rice, koji (mould-inoculated grains used to make miso, soy sauce, sake, and mirin) and water, and while the Fens have plenty of the latter, the paddy fields of Cambridgeshire are definitely not a thing. So why are they here? Well, the man behind it has a history of sake production back in Japan, in Settsu Tonda in Kansai, but the family sake business did not have room for their second son, and so he has now moved to an estate just outside Newmarket. He is Yoshihide Hashimoto, and in 2018 he set up his new business in the UK, brewing sake in Cambridgeshire.

When looking for a location, they settled on Fordham Abbey “with its beauty and grandeur, rolling meadows and walled gardens”. They say that it is suitable because of the “Ice Age strata (which) sit(s) below the ground, purifying the water,” purity of water being an essential for the production of sake. As I’m not a geologist, I shall have to take their word for it.

Anyway, we rolled up somewhat early but were warmly welcomed by the head brewer, Andy, and were invited to go and mooch around the Japanese garden should we be so inclined. As it was a nice evening for late September, if a tad cloudy, we did as they suggested, discovering a garden that clearly had a lot of history behind it, even before it had been remodelled into a Japanese style. This was presumably because the original abbey had started out as a priory, founded in the reign of Henry III. After the Dissolution, and the English Reformation, it became a residential estate, and a Georgian manor house was built in place of the older building in the 1700s. It’s a lovely setting, but the actual brewing is done in a modern, low building to the side of the estate, with a shop, reception and bar/dining room opposite it.

The garden was beginning to decline towards the end of Autumn, and into Winter, but there was still a lot to enjoy. That included late flowering bushes and shrubs, and a great deal of fruit on some splendidly venerable trees. We were told we were welcome to pick plums if we wanted to, but we didn’t have anything to carry them home in, so we left them for those who might have been more prepared than us.

We were eventually called in for the main part of the evening, a tasting of the two sakes, with an accompanying Japanese meal. The meal was apparently being prepared for the first time (this was the third of the full moon evenings they’ve done) by a chef brought in for the night from London. I suspect he was probably somewhat thrown by not being in his own kitchen. The first two courses went well enough, but it all fell apart round the mains, where there didn’t appear to be enough to feed everyone! Good job the sake was good. The starter of crab was very tasty, at least!

I have always regarded the popularity of sake as being a bit of a mystery, but it turns out that’s because I’d never tried the really good stuff before. These two sakes were glorious, especially the second of them, which was smooth, full of fruit notes, and slipped down a treat. Sadly I didn’t get to bring any home with me as the only way you can lay hands on them is to join the Sake Club (£100 for membership) and I didn’t think that would necessarily be sensible. I will be looking out for good sake in future though.

The two offerings are their “ordinary” junmai sake and an aged version of the same sake. For the junmai sake the rice used is first polished to at least 70 percent. It is then combined with the aforementioned water from the estate. It is fermented slowly to create the sake. All I can say is it’s actually anything but ordinary or basic, with a rich full body, and an intense flavour. The aged version, bearing the Junmai Sake Cambridge label, uses sake instead of water to mix with the rice, creating a kijoshu sake. It is fabulous!

Dinner and the tasting over, we were invited to head back outside, where, almost miraculously, the heavy cloud cover that had built up earlier in the evening, was gone. It had left some low-lying mist in its wake, especially over the fields beyond the garden, but the full moon was out and shining fully on all of us as we pretended to be members of the Japanese elite.

The drive home was interesting with the A14 being closed, and as a result it took half an hour longer to get back than I’d originally anticipated. An unscheduled trip into Newmarket really had not been on my to-do list that morning! We finally made it home just before midnight, so I suppose it could have been a lot worse.

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