Have you ever gone into a shop or restaurant and thought, “this is the sort of place I would like to own”? If you’re anything like me, these sorts of entrepreneurial whims probably pop into your head all the time. Indeed, anyone with a favorite neighborhood coffee shop or bakery can probably relate to this statement. However, it’s rare to find a business that truly resonates with one’s own tastes. That’s the great yet tricky thing about small businesses – they’re so intensely personal, so reflective of their individual owner’s like and dislikes that they can sometimes seem like an exclusive club, their audience limited to a few devoted patrons.
Enter Chez Momo, the product of one couple’s devotion to French jams, impeccable coffee, crafts, and an uncompromising eye for detail.
I first noticed Chez Momo during my first few weeks living in Matsumoto. One day, while wandering along the river that snakes through town, a sign with hand-painted Roman lettering jumped out at me amid the sea of Japanese characters. The shop did not seem to be open, nor was it when I passed a few weeks later. I began to wonder if the building had been abandoned long ago, like so many others in the city. At some point, I noticed that the shutters had finally been rolled up. A small sign stood outside advertising coffee, tea, and jams. The door was wide open and a woven noren hung inside, indicating that the shop was open for business.
At the time I was too shy to practice my Japanese, so I merely ducked in, bought a jar of jam, and left. From there the jar traveled to Brooklyn, where I gave it to my parents as a Christmas present. When I finally tasted my purchase – a blackcurrant and raspberry conserve – I knew I had stumbled upon something special and vowed to return. The jam was thin and glossy with a deep, ruby red color. Barely sweetened and brightened with a hint of lemon zest, it was marvelous swirled into plain yogurt at breakfast or spooned over baumkuchen for an afternoon snack. More than anything, though, it embodied the sprightly acidity and sun-drenched sweetness of the fruit. We enjoyed the jam everyday for a week and quietly mourned the empty jar.
When I later discovered that Chez Momo served breakfast, I immediately made plans to take my parents there on their recent visit to Japan. We arrived at nine on a weekday morning, intending to stay for half an hour before heading off for sightseeing. In the end we stayed over an hour, lingering over cups of obsessively brewed drip coffee and breakfasts of eggs, toast, yogurt, and homemade waffles with freshly whipped cream, all of course accompanied by the shop’s signature slow-simmered conserves. Nothing on the menu cost more than 650 yen (about $8.50 by today’s dismal exchange rate).
A few days after our first visit, we returned for an afternoon pick-me-up in the form of confiture squash, a refreshing concoction of soda water mixed with fruit conserves. After poring over the menu, I eventually settled on the apple-raspberry confiture, while my father went for a grapefruit and amanatsu (a sweet-sour Japanese citrus) marmalade. The jam settled to the bottom of the glass, creating a delightful play of textures between fizzy water, crunchy raspberry seeds, and chewy pieces of apple and citrus peel. Scooping up these fruity bits with the smooth wooden spoons provided with our drinks was half the fun.
So, what prompted a Japanese couple to start a business devoted to artisanal jam? When I asked the owner, Maita Tomoyuki, his eyes lit up. He told me that his dream had been to study jam-making in France with Christine Ferber, a renowned pâtissière and confiturière and author of Mes Confitures. After she turned down his request for an apprenticeship, he studied with a different jam-maker in France, then returned to Japan to open his shop. Despite this, Maita’s copy of Mes Confitures, which he kindly allowed me to peruse, is clearly a prized possession.
While Ferber’s recipes are indeed inspiring, Chez Momo’s confitures are somewhat more pared down, like Japanese cuisine itself. This doesn’t make them any less appealing though. Combinations like kiwi and walnut, blueberry and grapefruit, and citrus with red chilies are the norm, and all of them are delicious. Better yet, many of the Chez Momo’s products are made with locally-produced fruit with no pectin added, the better to maintain the integrity of the fruit.
Yet I soon realized that Chez Momo’s terrific jams and menu are not its only strengths. The whole experience – lingering at the tiny counter, chatting with Maita while he laboriously prepared our coffee, admiring the various crafts throughout store – was completely unhurried, even relaxing. Indeed, the relentless drive for turnover and profit that can plague food establishments seemed not to matter here. Friends dropped in, promising to visit later, and our food and drinks came to us slowly – very slowly, in fact. Promotional flyers and the business cards of neighboring shops were prominently displayed, and assorted books and notepads made from recycled paper were neatly arranged in a corner. When we inquired about the various fabric crafts decorating the shop, Maita informed us his mother, a textile artist who lives upstairs, had made many of them. In other words, Chez Momo offered exactly what a small business should offer – not only the opportunity to unwind, but an establishment rooted in and contributing to the local economy, a true community hub.
If you ever find yourself in Matsumoto, be sure to pay Chez Momo a visit. But if a trip to Japan (much less to a small city in the mountains) is not on the horizon, hopefully some photos will suffice. (Or: if you’re really curious, let me know and I’ll happily mail you a sample!)