Toshiro Kuroda is a man on a mission. Over the past seven years he estimates he has introduced up to 50,000 people in France to the delights of the fermented rice drink sake with fans that include French actor Gerard Depardieu.

"When I started seven or eight years ago, nobody was doing tastings of the famous sakes. (Now) there is a growing interest and it's partly thanks to me!" he told AFP at a fair in Paris dedicated to the beverage which originated in Japan.

Kuroda, who has lived in France for over 40 years, is credited with championing the drink in the French capital where his shop stocks some 60 brands. One of his tastings was held at Depardieu's home.

Once dismissed as the exclusive preserve of Japanese restaurants, devotees of the drink say it is enjoying a growth in popularity in France with the opening of sake bars and a growing number of wine merchants that stock it.

Last week a Japanese non-governmental organisation, Jetro, promoted it at Vinexpo in Bordeaux, one of the world's largest wine and spirit trade shows, while at the same time the sake fair was held in Paris.

"The aim of the sake tasting fair is that people get a clearer idea of sake," said one of the organisers, Youlin Ly, who also runs the Sake Bar in Paris.

Visitors were able to choose from no less than 185 different brands of the drink.

Kuroda has even formed an association for fans of the drink -- Les Becs Fins du Sake -- along with Eric Briffard, the chef of the two Michelin star restaurant Le Cinq at Paris's George V hotel, and award-winning wine waiter Olivier Poussier.

"It's a product of quality and refinement, said Briffard.

Sake's quality depends on various factors including the quality of the water used which must be very soft, and the rice of which each of the many varieties gives a different flavour.

The alcohol content varies from around 14-16 percent and it is served either chilled or at room temperature.

Sylvain Huet, another co-organiser of the fair, advises anyone new to sake to forget anything they have ever heard about it.

"As with anything that is new, you must forget your preconceived ideas," said Huet who came across sake while travelling in Japan.

Huet is the only French "sake samurai", a title accorded by the Brewers' Association of Japanese Sake in recognition of his expertise.

"We have to educate people about sake," he added.

And if sake is the perfect complement to Japanese food, French cuisine is not far behind, according to Briffard.

"A lot of combinations are possible. A dry sake could replace a white (wine) with shellfish. Sake and goat's cheese is a good combination ... (and) it goes very well with uncomplicated food," he said.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]