Bourbon for breakfast. Not how I start most working days, but then again it is not every day that you join a forester to hunt wild boar in rural Japan. Sure it doesn’t matter if the wild boar later out-smart you to live another day. They probably enjoyed a hearty breakfast of flora and fauna as opposed to a whiskey-cino. But look at it this way – if the whiskey wasn’t intended for pre-hunting consumption then why on earth would they call it ‘Early Times?’
With the exception of our Kentucky hunting aid, during my time in central mountainous Japan I rarely saw anything other than local produce. Of course it is easy to claim that this is how things should be; local produce boosts your eco-credentials, keeps things seasonal and helps support your community. But that sort of endorsement would be rich coming from a man who throws a tantrum when Waitrose don’t have any Sicilian blood oranges for his winter granita recipe (grapefruit it is then). Nevertheless, with such a plethora of producers on offer, I wanted to take this rare time away from big cities to work with some countryside producers.
Before you accuse me of cheating, don’t worry, I’m not going to equate a morning drinking session and a mosey around the woods with a ‘food job’, especially as we didn’t do any boar-hunting as such. But the experience still offered great insights into why hunting is important for the local environment. Forester Miyake Daisuke explained to me that his biggest problem is foreign pine. Planted for quick-growing fire wood, the pine soon dominated the forest landscape, destroying many indigenous plant and animal species as a result.
Despite Daisuke’s best attempts to restore natural order, those pesky boars gobbled the seeds, nuts, roots and tubers of every plant they could find. As well as developing a reputation as gluttons, these boars are also serial shaggers and can triple their population in the space of a year. In the absence of natural predators their population booms and they turn to urban areas to seek food and wreak havoc. Thankfully though, this problem has a rather delicious solution. A solution which consists in slowly roasting a leg of boar meat over a fire in a stock of miso, soy and sake. Never has being green tasted so good.
After my leisurely day hunting it was time for some real work at the Inaka Jiman miso factory. Miso forms an integral part of Japanese cuisine, not just in soup as we commonly find it in the UK, but also as seasoning. During my three weeks in Japan I cannot recall a single meal in which miso didn’t play a part.
The production process is simple. Soy beans are boiled, minced, and left to cool. Salt is added along with koji – a fungus incubated on both rice and barley that causes fermentation to take place over the coming months. During this time the koji breaks down carbs, fat and proteins in the soy beans and converts them into digestible sugar, fatty acids and amino acids which give miso its umami, flavor-enhancing properties. This sort of chemical reaction is slowly starting to fascinate many chefs world wide and has led to a number of experiments in fermentation, such as the work done by Noma’s Nordic Food Lab. Watch this space…!
One step in the production process involves rolling bean paste into balls and hurtling it through the air into a bucket. The women of the factory produce miso every week and yet when it come to the miso tossing, the factory is reduced to a state of childish giggles. If you’re ever in need of cheering up, head to a miso factory. I promise you’ll leave with a giant smile on your face.
Before I left the countryside, I had one last foodish encounter which couldn’t have occurred on a more appropriate day. Back home a dear friend was celebrating his 27th birthday. The birthday boy? None other than a certain Mr Snackingham, a nickname derived from his ability to hoard packs of discount ham in his work drawer and at home for inter-meal snacking. So how better for me to celebrate than with a visit to the local Japanese ham factory. Had my swine-slurping, gammon-gobbling, ham hound mate accompanied me, I would never have made my plane to China – we would have been too busy creating a sequel to La Grande Bouffe (minus perhaps the French hookers perhaps).
All of these adventures in the countryside were thanks to Charlotte Payne, who served as guide, translator, and enthusiastic entomophagist. In between the my foodish endeavours Charlotte served me many delights such as giant hornet infused shochu, and wasp lava rice sticks, which gave me the opportunity to sample local produce I would otherwise have missed. Farewell Japan…Next Stop China.