Fruit sandwiches and $4000 grapes

Would you fork out $4000 for a bunch of grapes? Or do you happen to have a spare $20.000 lying around for a pair of cantaloupe melons?

Headlines in the international news often announce with utter amazement the latest record prices paid in Japanese auctions for exquisite gift fruit.

But why is it so expensive?

Unlike vegetables, fruit is considered to be a luxury product in Japan. There are several reasons for this: Most of the country consists of mountains - not much space for extensive orchards.
Therefore, traditionally, Japanese agriculture has concentrated on growing vegetables.
And it is hardly surprising that a nation whose cuisine reflects its close connection to nature, considers exquisite fruit a gracious and noble gift for special occasions.

For these prestigious gift-giving moments, only fruit grown in Japan will do: grown, tended to and harvested under the strictest conditions by perfectionist farmers.

The blossoms are delicately pollinated by hand with brushes. Each precious melon, each perfectly formed apple, each strawberry is lovingly being cared for and ripens in a greenhouse under regulated temperature.

Everything has to be perfect - the colour, scent, form, structure, marbling...and, of course, the taste.

Only the best will make it into Japan's exclusive fruit boutiques. Entering one of these establishments, you will be forgiven for thinking you have entered a jewellery shop, or a museum even:

While music by Bach plays quietly in the background, customers tip-toe through the shop in a hushed, awed silence, admiring the boutique's flawless exhibits.

Like precious diamonds, the most expensive pieces are kept in shockproof, unbreakable glass cases; others are individually protected by beautiful, intricate packaging in tasteful colours.

The boutique's logo is on each piece, so that the lucky recipient is sure to be aware of the value of the gift.

While I wasn't prepared to spend my entire travel budget on a bunch of grapes, no matter how delicious, I really, really did want to find out for myself whether the taste of selected Japanese fruit lived up to its fame.

The occasion presented itself with Beniman, a fruit parlor in Kobe. Resembling an elegant European fin-de-siecle Viennese coffee house, this establishment offers delighted customers beautifully arranged selections of fruit, as well as fruit cakes and even fruit sandwiches!

Just look at the vivid colours and presentation! And the flavour was truly wonderful.
I can honestly say that this was the best fruit I have ever tasted - maybe with the exception of the dessert fruit in Kyoto's Michelin-starred Mankamerou.

And those fruit sandwiches were a lot of fun too!

If you are in Japan, do try to visit a fruit parlor. You will be enchanted by the culinary delights offered, as well as by the captivating (and, especially for a Westerner, quite quirky) cultural experience.