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May 22, 2006

Premium Fruit

Dominic Armato
Part of the reason food is so fantastic in Japan is the nation's obsessive devotion to quality. These are broad generalizations, but in the US market, cost is almost always the first consideration. The price point for a product is determined first, and then the resources are adjusted to match the price. This happens in Japan also, to be sure, but it seems like there's a much larger market for products that are made to be the best they can possibly be, with little if any regard for cost. It's this frame of mind that gave birth to the premium packaging that drives me there for work, the pinnacle of beefy decadence that is Kobe beef, and even more surprisingly to most, Japan's premium fruit. To put premium Japanese fruit into context and make it sound slightly less insane, it's important to remember that in Japan, the practice of gift giving makes ours look simple by comparison. Combine a regimented social structure wth a culture that holds respect, status and politeness in exceptionally high regard, and you get the practice of okaeshi... giving return gifts of roughly half the value of the original gift. Throw in the aforementioned boundless pursuit of perfection, and you get $200 cantaloupes.

No, it's not an exaggeration. Of course, it should be obvious that not all Japanese produce is so expensive. Generally speaking, everyday produce seems a little pricey, but not unreasonably so, and given the tradeoff in quality, I'm inclined to believe that it's worth every penny. But premium fruit is another beast entirely. These fruits are bred to be the apotheosis of fruity goodness, and meticulously tended as they grow. They're sold at the peak of their ripeness, ornately packaged with more care than the average newborn child, and sold at a price that reflects the amount of care they've been given. The result is absolute perfection. Of course, the prices reflect the quality. $200 for a gift melon isn't the least bit unusual. The cherries you see pictured below sell for over $100 per box... more than $1 per cherry. Insanity? It would seem so. Until you taste some.

Dominic Armato
I've tasted Japanese premium fruit only once, and it was purely by accident. We were eating at Zakuro, our favorite shabu shabu joint, where you're constantly swarmed by an army of kimono-clad hostesses who endeavor to micromanage every little detail of your placesetting. Of course, nothing is done without permission. As such, when dining at Zakuro, you're constantly bombarded with questions... may I fill your drink, may I move your plate, or may I give you a napkin. So 98% of the time, they're just looking for simple acknowledgement before performing their myriad duties. The problem, when you don't speak Japanese, is determining which questions comprise the other 2%, and our inability to do so is how we ended up with the $40 peaches. Three of them. For dessert. And they were amazing. In the States, I'm convinced that you could eat 500 peaches during the peak season and not encounter one that was half as tasty as these. I know I had never had anything even remotely close in a lifetime of peach eating. They were incredibly sweet with just the right hint of sour and the most intense natural peach flavor I've ever encountered. The flesh was firm but yielding, perfectly uniform throughout and absolutely gushing juice. The fruits themselves were the size of softballs, perfectly shaped, perfectly colored and without the tiniest blemish. They were, for lack of a better word, absolutely perfect. This isn't to say that I intend to make a habit of consuming pieces of fruit that cost as much as a cheap dinner for four, but as a once in a long while event, I can't knock it for a moment. Those peaches made our lunch that day one of the best meals I've had in the last five years, and with culinary nirvana increasingly hard to come by, I see a $40 surcharge as a small price to pay for something truly special.


I would never pay that much for Japanese fruit.

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