Sep 16 2007

Sunshine and Sashimi

Above_ground

The relentless summer rain has given way to golden autumn sunshine. A chocolate box blue sky is decorated with perfect puffy flat bottomed little clouds gliding majestically across the valley. Sloes, fat and shiny fill the hedgerows with plump black wild plums and glistening blackberries. Orchards are heavy with fruit. Golden stubble fields striped green are evidence of a meagre harvest gathered at last after the  summer floods that devastated livestock and crops alike. Feed and hay prices are rising, vegetables will be in short supply this winter.  Even my own little harvest is the worst I’ve ever had. Potato blight destroyed my vegetable garden this year, caused, I suppose by wet, water logged soil. It swept through potatoes, beans, tomatoes. And then the badgers had a midnight feast, disco in fact, in my little patch of sweet corn. They trashed the plants and munched on every cob leaving their debris for me to clear up. Maddening as it is I rather wish I’d seen them having such fun!

Apples  Wild_plums

And the sun is shining again and until yesterday things were looking up and then the news broke of another Foot & Mouth outbreak in Surrey. Down came all the movement restrictions again only days after we were had beenl given the all clear. Next week we had hoped to put the old ram in with the ewes but we have decided against it now. We had planned to buy a new chap but the Whiteface sale is postponed with all the rest. Once more the farmers are in crisis and, to make matters worse, at this the most critical time in the farming calendar. It is truly heartbreaking. And again this outbreak appears so far to come from the laboratory fractured pipe leakage of the last out break. Oh dear.

I will collect some new chickens soon and hope the foxes will find sustenance elsewhere for a while! I will clear the blighted beds and plant winter cabbage, tidy the poly tunnel and plant winter salad, dig borders and divide herbaceous plants; and so the seasons roll around again. We pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and start all over again!

Not all the summer was gloom, doom and disaster though. The sun poked its head reluctantly through the August sky and children sailed their dinghies on the river and crabbed on the pontoon. There were damp picnics on the beach and camp sites in soggy fields, lunches at Claire’s café under huge sun umbrellas to keep off the rain and pints of beer diluted with raindrops on the foreshore outside the pub.

 

And then we flew away! For two glorious weeks we left the rain behind and explored the countryside of Japan in boiling sun and sweltering humidity. It was wonderful!

 

Lake_1_2 

We went to Hokkaido with our family and stayed in Ryokans, delightful Japanese hotels. We bathed each evening in the luxurious-ness of hot spring water in the hotel Onsen before eating deliciously in our room. Our food arrived on beautiful lacquer trays, a feast of little dishes: sashimi with soy sauce and a dab of head clearing wasabi, Shabu-Shabu beef and fungi for each of us to cook in our own little individual fondue. There were seaweed noodles, scallops in hot butter, a little piece of salmon, some white fish, pickled octopus, a Japanese version of Quenelle, a fine Miso soup, pickles, sauces and, of course, delicious Japanese rice all washed down with a glass of Sapporo beer. We were in heaven!

Supper

We canoed down a silent river……..

Canoeing_2

We walked near lakes,  watched cranes flying overhead. We saw signs warning us of bears! We passed trees with huge claw marks imbedded in the trunk to prove the point. We explored woodland and found a bright blue lake, Gift of God Pond.

Pond_of_god_2

 We gazed in wonder at the flooded crater of a huge volcano. We visited the villages of the Ainu people and learnt about their history, their lives and their skills. We travelled north to Shiratoko peninsula and, in Utoro on the edge of the Ohotsukuku-kai Sea, we ate fresh crab chosen by the children from a huge tank in the restaurant. We took a boat trip up the coast and watched “God’s Water” tumble from the mountains into the sea. Centuries ago the Ainu people tasted the  hot, bitter torrent and, finding it undrinkable, declared it to be only fit for the gods.

 

Water_for_gods

We watched a bear drinking on the shore with her cub; an eagle stretching lazily on a rock ignoring the roar of our engine. Water falls of  “Woman’s tears” and “Men’s tears” crashed, foaming, in a narrow torrent into the sea. Flocks of Fulmers followed the boat, flapping their wings and gliding low, skimming the water. We passed isolated fishing villages and watched the boats returning with their catch. In the distance we saw shadowy islands in the mist. “Russia” said our guide “if we go further we’ll be arrested”. He turned the boat south and staying in Japanese water, took us safely back to Utoro.

We returned to our hotel for another sojourn in the hot spring water to relax us still more. The women in the Onsen reminded me of Impressionist paintings as they gracefully showered and washed their hair beside the steamy pool. We soaked our bodies in the hot minerally water as the stars twinkled overhead. Eventually we climbed out reluctantly, dried, put on the Hotel Yukata and returned to our rooms for another feast.

This time we were served “fish stew” boiling impossibly in individual paper plates over a naked flame! There was a tiny barbeque of beef and sweet corn for each of us, some pickled fish in exquisite little bowls. There was a little dish of crispy Tempura fried prawns, a tiny piece of crab, a strange egg custard with Tofu, more of  my favourite sashimi, another little pot containing a small fish and potato ball and of course, as tradition requires, Miso soup and rice.

Kushiro_supper 

We left Hokkaido reluctantly but not before one more memorable feast. As we walked along the quay in Kushiro, time was running out. We needed supper quickly before our family left for an evening flight back to Tokyo. We stopped outside a colourful tent with rows of market stalls laden with all manner of raw meat, fish and vegetables. We bought tickets and each chose a selection of food. We took it back to our table under canvas and cooked it on our own barbecue in the centre of our table and then went back for more! The result was absolutely delicious!

We said goodbye to family for a few days and flew down to the manic perpetual motion that is Nagoya. To our amazement and delight we managed to find our way from the airport to the train that would take us up into the mountains to glorious Takayama, without getting impossibly lost! We travelled out of the urban sprawl through forests, lakes, dams, mountains, finally arriving in the “Japanese Alps”. We stayed above the town amongst the trees in the beautiful little Hakuun Ryokan; more wonderful food and a small restrained Onsen with a balcony looking down across twinkling lights of the sleepy town.

Next morning we walked down into town across the beautiful Naka-Bashi Bridge to the first morning market where local produce is brought in every day by women from the country. These Asa-ichi started in the Edo period about two hundred years ago selling rice, mulberries and flowers. They developed into the Morning Markets some 100 years later in Meiji period and continue much the same today

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Morning_market1_2 Morning_market2_2   

We took a bus still farther into the hills to the ancient protected Edo village of Shirakawa-go and visited the huge thatched Gassho houses. We walked past little rice fields and beautiful gardens full of summer flowers. We looked at lotus blossom and the little ponds outside each house full of coy carp whose job it is to purify the drinking water! In the intense heat it was hard to imagine the deep snow and harshness of winter.

Gassho_house 

Down to Nargoya again and the Shinkansen sped us back to Tokyo and, after a delightful forty eight hours with our family, we found ourselves sitting once more on the plane and leaving it all behind us. It was without doubt a holiday of a lifetime!

Sushi and Sashimi

It takes years to become a Sushi master. A young apprentice may spend two years simply preparing the rice before he is allowed to touch a fish. The fish is so fresh many bars keep the fish alive in tanks and prepare them for each order. I’ve even seen a lorry full of water transporting fish across the city; a sort of huge mobile aquarium.

In this country it is only possible to serve either sashimi or a simple version of sushi if you are fortunate enough to be a fisherman or  live near the sea and able buy fish the day it has been caught. There is a saying in Tokyo that if it is past midday the fish is not fresh enough for sushi!

I am lucky enough to have two sources of very fresh fish in my local town so occasionally for a special treat I make Temaki-zushi or California Roll style sushi. I rinse sushi rice in water and cook it in an equal quantity of water i.e. 5 cups of rice to 5 cups of water. I boil it quickly for three minutes then reduce the heat and continue for a further ten. Then I check to see that the water is all absorbed. Next I cover the pot with a cloth and let the rice stand for another 15 minutes. While the rice is standing I prepare the dressing by mixing a little salt and sugar with about 125 ml of Sushi vinegar or Mirin.

Traditionally the rice is tipped into a wooden tub but a plastic bowl will do at home! Using a wooden spatula, I slice through the rice rather than stir it, as I add the rice vinegar mixture. The Sushi apprentice would also fan the rice as he turned it, to cool it to body temperature; cooler than this and the grains begin to harden. Now you begin to see why he must practice for so long to perfect this art form of cooking rice!

I serve the rice, still warm, with very thin slivers of the freshest raw salmon and tuna, king prawns, smoked eel, sliced cucumber, avocado, asparagus, mange-tout peas, spring onions and whatever else I fancy.

I ask each guest to take a sheet of Nori sea weed, fill it with rice, a selection of fish and vegetables, a dab of hot, eye watering Wasabi and a little slice of sweet pickled ginger and some soy sauce, then twisting  it into a cone shape, eat it with their fingers. We drink green tea, a glass of sake or some Japanese beer and have a feast; a simplified version of the great delicacy of Japan!

And a dish of Sashimi, fish, wasabi and ginger and soy sauce without rice or nori, makes a wonderful starter to a meal.

Drying_fish2 

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