We couldn't have asked for a more beautiful day weather wise, but what we didn't know as we timidly made our way through Blueberry Garden ASAHI farm overlooking the Ashigara Heiya valley, was that this day was going to be beautiful in all senses of the word.
This day, was the annual miso making workshop hosted by Miso No Kai, a group I first heard about the group when I learned of the many projects under the big umbrella of Ashigara Nou No Kai. It was lucky that this year's miso making workshop happened to be during a visit from my good friends Doug and Gemma, farmers visiting from Zaklan Heritage Farm in (sort of) Vancouver. And so it was, that I excitedly signed us all up to pop in to observe.
When we arrived at 9am things were already bumping. Big vats of soybeans had already been boiling from the wee hours of the morning, the fires dotingly stoked by dedicated members, a big miso soup with pot luck ingredients was being organized and salt was being weighed into exact portions. People, of all ages, were streaming in carrying buckets of koji (rice inoculated with bacteria specific for miso production) that they had tended to over the past week, excitedly staking out their miso making spots on tarps carefully laid out by miso making veterans.
Soon the soy beans were deemed cooked to the perfect consistency (squishable between the thumb and forefinger, but still holding its shape) and everyone patiently got in line to get doled their share of the beans. And this is where the real fun began: 3 parts miso to 1 part salt were mixed in big plastic garbage bags. We then began to (carefully) squish the mixture into as smooth of a paste as we could by stepping on the plastic bag (don't break the bag!) containing the mixture. Everyone went about the task at varying levels of meticulousness: some attempting to squish each bean individually, some putting the mixture through a meat grinder, others more laissez faire deeming the mixture "good enough" after haphazardly massaging the mixture for half an hour. I loved finding un-smooshed beans and popping them under my fingers- sort of the same satisfaction you get when popping bubble wrap. Doug, ever the innovator, devised a 'rolling method using his water bottle as a makeshift rolling pin. Somewhere along the way, Gemma's eye for detail had her designated head of quality control, put in charge of giving out 'pass'/'fail' assessments on people's miso mixture quality. The air was filled with laughter, banter and encouragement, pierced by the occasional groan as people accidentally broke through their bags.
When the mixture was determined to be the 'right' consistency, hands were washed and prepped for the next step. First salt was poured on the bottom of people's miso vessels (most were plastic buckets with lids). Then, little hamburger like balls were shaped, squeezing out as much air as possible, and then thrown into the bucket. After each layer of miso 'hamburger' balls, air was again 'pushed' out by pressing down on the mixture from above, and was followed by another layer of salt. On the final layer, some spread a layer of miso from the year before to inoculate the new batch with 'good' flavour.
So that was the end of the miso making, but we were only halfway through the fun. The appetizer to lunch was a miso tasting contest. Little sticks of daikon were used as taster sticks, with everyone dipping into misos of years past. It was incredible how varied each tasted despite being made with the same ingredients. We were told that though each one was delicious, everyone secretly thought theirs was the best.
Lunch was the big pot of miso 'stone' soup made with ingredients everyone had brought to share, and a massive pot luck. Rather than everyone introducing themselves, everyone instead introduced what they brought. Each dish seemed to have some story: wild boar hunted by a friend, tempura-ed foraged greens, stewed veggies proudly harvested from a new garden, onigiri from rice grown by members of the group. Everything was unbelievably delicious, tasting all the more splendid with the sun on our faces, our eyes drinking in the vistas around us. We left that afternoon feeling that more than cultivating soy or miso, what this group had managed to do was cultivate community. And perhaps being privy to that was what was most beautiful of all.
For us, this day making miso was one of fun and of learning. But for most others present that day, this day was the culmination of a year long process of growing, cultivating and harvesting soy. No one in this group is a full time farmer, but each manages to find some time in their busy schedule to come and help in the process of managing 2 hectares of soy. The reward? A fair share of the soy at the end of the season and help turning that soy into miso. In previous years where they had had a bumper crop, they even made soy sauce!
What's amazing, is that no one takes attendance at the various work parties throughout the year. There is a trust amongst all of the members that everyone is going to try to contribute as much as they can. And the harvest is divvied up equally. And no one feels ripped off.... yet. This year due to a bad harvest, they just barely had enough soy for everyone to make their desired amount of miso. If in the future they have to limit the amount of soy each person is able to receive, will these feelings of trust and generosity prevail? The group is not waiting to see what the results of that experiment might be- next year they are increasing their production area to make sure they can maintain their status of abundance.
*photos courtesy of Ashigara Miso No Kai. For more information about the group, see their facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/nounokai/
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