Shortbread might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Japanese baking, but for Tomi’s Shortbread House, it is a culinary staple. Located in the heart of Kumamoto, this British-style pastry shop offers so much more than just shortbread. I spoke to the store owner Yuki Wilson about the pastry industry in Japan, and what makes shortbread so popular.
“When I was 10 years old, my sister took me to a Tea Room in Ginza (Tokyo)…I had Iced Apple Tea and cake… I still remember the look, the smell; all so elegant.” Yuki recalls with ease the childhood experience that first got her interested in the pastry industry. Her parents were hard-working business people, something which gave Yuki the opportunity both to practice household cooking from a young age, as well as inspiring her own business aspirations with encouragement and support.
Starting out in a Japanese pastry shop, Yuki worked long hours daily – but as she was living her dream, she enjoyed the work. Making fine pastry was what she wanted to do. To achieve her dream, she later studied abroad and gained wonderful work experience, such as working with the esteemed Le Cordon Bleu in London and Paris, followed by working at the Savoy Hotel in London. Coming from a supportive, business-minded family, it seemed natural that Yuki would set up her own business on return to Japan.
This year the shop celebrates its 10th anniversary – a great landmark for any small business. When Yuki first opened the shop, it was instantly popular – British-style pastry was a rare thing in Japan and so the shop was filling a niche gap in the market. With Yuki’s experiences abroad, she could offer authentic, British-style pastries, made with a local twist.
As the name suggests, shortbread is one of the main products sold by Tomi’s Shortbread House. There are many different types of shortbread to try, using different flavours and ingredients. Plain shortbread is famous for its creamy, buttery taste. If you want to try something different, some other flavours available are: organic cashew nuts, Jersey butter or (my personal favourite) lemon shortbread. The giant glass jar on the counter full of individual packets of shortbread make me feel like a child in a sweet shop – I’m always tempted to lift the heavy lid and dig around for my favourite flavours.
Scones are the epitome of British Cream Tea’s. You can buy the scones on their own, or as a part of a set with tea, jam and cream. The jam (from Aso) is available by the pot, as is the Orange Honey (from Kumamoto). With boxes of P.G.Tips tea bags standing in rows and copies of the Waitrose Food magazine in the flyer rack, it’s easy to forget you’re in Southern Japan, not back home in England.
For those of you with a sweet tooth, don’t miss out on trying the fudge or the Scottish tablet, both in a variety of flavours. Tablet, by the way, is a Scottish sugar confectionery that is made from condensed milk, sugar and butter. Whereas fudge is soft and squishy, tablet is much more grainy and brittle. It’s very sweet, and something that surprised Yuki with its popularity – Japanese cuisine doesn’t feature many items of such intense sweetness, but despite the unique flavour, both fudge and tablet have been the popular products in the shop.
As well as these items, you can buy seasonal cakes and pastries depending on what has been grown locally in recent months. The three most popular items are the Chocolate Fudge, the Chocolate Brownies and the Scones. Yuki’s personal favourite is the Victoria Sponge Cake – a slice of happiness guaranteed to win any lady’s heart.
It goes without saying that in a small, unique business like this, you can expect to find the best ingredients. As far as is possible, the ingredients used in Tomi’s Shortbread products are either locally sourced or organically grown. The fruits used in jams and seasonal pastries are local, such as blueberries, apricots, strawberries and apples. Japanese pears grow well in the North of Japan, and so that is where many of the pears come from.
The flour is from Kyushu, and the butter is from Aso, Miyazaki and Hokkaido. The organic sugar is locally sourced, and the brown sugar is fair trade, as is the chocolate. Milk comes from Kikuchi, and Amakusa sea salt is used in the more savoury products.
“But I don’t live in Kumamoto!” I hear you cry out… but fear not! These hand-baked delicacies aren’t just available to us lucky ones who live close-by. While most of the customers are seen in the shop itself,Tomi’s Shortbread House also has a dedicated website where you can place orders, and a Facebook page to find out about the latest news (links below). As well as these outlets, you sample these sweet treats all over the place, as they are stocked in many shops and cafes.
A recent boom in production was needed due to the Hakata coffee shop which stocks Tomi’s products. Organic shop Purely in Kumamoto stocks the shortbread, as does the Kamitori based shop Delice. Scone sets can be purchased at the Cotswold’s Tea Rooms and the awesome import store Land Marchealso stocks a variety of products. Seattle’s Best Coffee has over 500 stores worldwide – more than 40 of those are in Japan, and 18 of them are stocked with Tomi’s products. Not to mention the Kamitori herb shop Verde and a hotel in Shinjuku, there are many other small businesses that stock Tomi’s Shortbread products. While past orders have been limited to Japan, it’s not unheard of for visitors from neighbouring countries who have heard about the shop to make it a priority on their holiday tick list. So now you have no excuse not to get your hands on some delicious shortbread!
Is Tomi’s Shortbread House one of a kind? Well, pretty much – Yuki has a friend in Osaka whose shortbread shop has more of a French influence with delicate Parisian cookies, and in Hiroshima there is a British-style bakery and tea room that specializes in mince pies at Christmas, but as for dedicated shortbread shops, Tomi’s is a rare and unique thing.
So what does the future hold? Recently, Tomi’s has started doing catering for weddings, with darling cakes to make any occasion special. Yuki would like to expand the business and open up on a bigger premises where customers have more room to sit and chat – a tea house and shop combined rather than just a shop.
With all her experiences and knowledge of baking, particularly the history of shortbread, it wouldn’t be beyond Yuki to write a book about this interesting topic – not merely a cook-book, but a documentation of the history and the personal story behind it all. But of course, ever modest, first she wants to study more to really know everything there is about shortbread and baking before she embarks on that adventure. But regardless of whichever direction this story goes in next, the focus for Yuki will always be on the unique, personal and wholesome aspect of her craft.