In addition to the inner mountain and coastline areas, the city of Onomichi also has islands of various sizes that pop up out of the Seto Inland Sea. The local scenery is exceptional, encapsulated in the local phrase “Tatoubi”, which literally means “beautiful islands”, that is used to describe the sights these interweaving islands create.
My focus during my visit to these islands of Onomichi is “Setoda”, a single massive citrus fruit production area that straddles the two islands of Takaneshima and Ikuchi-jima. Blessed with a warm Seto Inland Sea climate, this area is said to be the origin of domestic lemons, and produces the largest amount of lemons in the country. “Setoda Lemons”, produced here in the Setoda area, are highly popular throughout the rest of Japan.
A Lemon-cuisine Movement Born in Onomichi
At the base of the growing popularity of Setoda lemons lies the development of a lemon-based cuisine in Onomichi, as well as the unique culinary movements that the area has generated over the past few years. An examples of these unique ideas is “ONOMICHI U2” a compound facility that includes an accommodation facility specialized for cyclists, café, restaurant, and Lifestyle Shop. Since its 2014 open a store, the facility has offered dishes and beverages that feature locally-produced lemons, and more.
One may also find lemon pizza, which is made using Seto Inland Sea lemons. The ingredients are cheese, whipped cream and salt-pickled lemons. The recipe may be simple, but the acidity of the lemons mixed with the saltiness of the cheese makes it an addicting and delicious dish. According to the staff, the most popular way to eat lemon pizza is with a generous helping of black pepper.
ONOMICHI U2 also produces and sells “G-motto”, an original lemon beverage. This carbonated drink is made using Setouchi lemons including Setoda lemons that were picked on Ikuchi-jima, and it utilizes acidity to create a refreshing taste.
The shop has, lemon confiture, salt-pickled lemons, and other processed lemon goods by Local company which is gaining popularity.
This sort of lemon cuisine is flourishing, and demand for Setoda lemons is increasing. According to Shoko Kuroda, who handles marketing and communication at ONOMICHI U2, “Right since our founding, cuisine using local lemons has been quite popular, and deliveries aren’t catching up to the demands.” In order to listen to what local lemon producers have to say on the matter, I crossed the Shimanami Kaido, and went to the Setoda, a region packed with lemon plantations.
“Hiroshima Prefecture is home to around 60% of the lemons produced in Japan, with about half of those being produced on two islands belonging to Setoda City, Ikuchi-jima and Takaneshima. It is an environment that allows for lemon cultivation, because it is comparatively warm throughout the year.”
There are certain labors and risks that must be borne when one is adamant about remaining organic. One aspect that requires particular attention and care are countermeasures for harmful insects. Looking at the backside of the lemon leaves, Mr. Nagahata says, “You remove the insects such as aphids and scale insects, by hand.” The free-range chickens being raised here feed on weeds as well as said harmful insects, and their dropping also serve as natural fertilizer. Being highly particular about organic practices, results in lemons that feature a gentle acidity and are low in bitterness.
“We are very careful with it comes to the lemons grown here, even to residue from agricultural chemicals. Our lemons can be consumed safely and without worry, even down to the peel”, says Mr. Nagahata. “In recent years, it has become quite normal to use these lemons in cooking and as seasoning, as well as in sweets. I feel that this change in culinary culture has led to an increase in demand for lemons. My wife also makes me salt-based lemon pickles, and we use these in place of soy sauce with our tofu. Previously, you did not see lemons widely used in these ways.”
Lemon Peel: The Source of a Booming Trend
In order to understand the roots lying at the base of this thriving lemon cuisine, I make my way to visit a manufacturer that produces and sells lemon-based food products. “Shimagokoro” is said to have been the first in Hiroshima Prefecture to make a cake using the peels of Setoda lemons. This lemon peel usage then in turn served as the catalyst for the current boom in lemon cuisine.
“At first, people were saying that a cake made using lemons in this way would never be successful”, says Branding Producer, Yoshika Okumoto. People had indeed been making lemon cakes, but they utilized lemon juice. Fruit juice and wheat flour aren’t compatible, and do not lead to delicious sweets. And so, Ms. Okumoto continues, “It was a widely accepted opinion that lemon sweets of this kind simply would not sell well.”
What Ms. Okumoto then began paying attention to was the lemon peels, which were often simply disposed of entirely. “The scent of a lemon actually comes more from its peel than its juice. Given this, by making lemon cakes that mainly used the peel, we were able to resolve the issue of poor compatibility with wheat flour. We were then able to pull off a delicious lemon cake.”
One million of these cakes are sold annually. This massive hit has led to lemon peels receiving quite a lot of attention. In the last four or five years, lemon peels have begun circulating widely throughout the food product industry, and are currently used as a base material in jams and other lemon-based foods. These products can be seen spreading throughout Japan.
A Lemon Boom: Cultivated by Japanese Cuisine
“We have involved chefs from Tokyo, Osaka, and other places, and have proposed dishes and food products that utilize lemons. The chefs and culinary culture qualities in Japan is quite high, and lemons that can meet this high standard are being produced within the country. I think that this is what lies at the base of the current lemon movement that is taking place throughout Japan.”
“Dishes using fresh, domestically-produced lemons, made by chefs with high levels of technical skill, is an attractive notion that is unique to Japan. We are also producing essential oils and lemon olive oils that are derived from lemon jam production methods. Lemon cuisine in Japan still holds has a lot of potential, and we are continually working towards further developments.”
Nagahata Lemon Farm
Photos: Yusuke Abe (YARD)
Text: Masaya Yamawaka
Edit: Saori Hayashida
Production: Skyrocket Corporation