Our third recipe comes from chef Shinichiro Harakawa, who two years ago, moved from Tokyo to Unzen (near Nagasaki), where he opened his restaurant BEARD. He moved down there to better utilize as ingredients vegetables harvested from heirloom seeds produced by a farmer Masatoshi Iwasaki. Also recently in the area a new shop, Taneto, opened to better market Iwasaki’s vegetables grown from the well-preserved seeds. Harakawa-san talks to us about his new life in Unzen, as well as the rich community there nurtured around an interest in quality farming.
A Fresh Start in Unzen
The new Beard
Kohama Onsen faces the western shore of the Shimabara Peninsula, where steam billows out along the arc-shaped coast. This street used to be an entertainment district in the Showa period (1926-1989) when it flourished as a tourist spot, but after a long period of disinvestment and decline, over the past few years some new shops have begun revitalizing the neighborhood. One of them is BEARD, which shares the name of the first restaurant that Harakawa-san opened in Tokyo.
The menu at the new “BEARD” is omakase, in which the client trusts the chef’s discretion to prepare meals with fresh, seasonal ingredients. Each dish is meant to tell a story of a vegetable’s history as well as the chef’s personality. The meals are to suggest, “This is Unzen, in which the soil, the farmer, and the chef are harmoniously interconnected.”
It is no small technique.
These are complex flavors not easily produced.
We understand that the reason you changed your base from Tokyo to Unzen was because of your encounter with Mr. Masatoshi Iwasaki, a local farmer preserving native seeds.
The main reason was my desire to cook Iwasaki-san’s vegetables right after harvesting. I had heard about this farmer when I was living in Tokyo, but had never visited his farm. It was around the time after I opened The Blind Donkey restaurant in the Kanda area of Tokyo when Noriko Okutsuji visited my restaurant. She run Taneto, a direct sales shop in Unzen that carries Iwasaki-san’s vegetables and invited me down south for a tour.
When I finally came for a visit, it was just before the harvesting of carrots. Right away, I felt comfortable with Iwasaki-san’s presence. He was very friendly. And persuasive. I came across from our conversations feeling that each carrot has its own individuality and a life force, even a will. It was so fascinating that I started thinking about moving there about six months later.
Today, I was very impressed with the vegetable broth you served in a small glass at the beginning of the course. I was amazed at how many layers of flavor can be created with just vegetables.
One day while boiling Iwasaki-san’s onions, I decided to drink some of the boiled water to taste its saltiness. It was so delicious that I decided to serve it at the beginning of dining courses. Iwasaki-san’s vegetables have a deep, manifold flavor, and I can tell that this is developed after ten or twenty years of scrupulous cultivation. For example, it is rather simple to produce tomatoes with high sugar content because it is just a technique. However, Iwasaki-san’s vegetables have a complex flavor that cannot be produced with techniques. I think that even if you look around the world, there are no farmers like Iwasaki-san.
Seed picking agriculture
Difficulties of making a living
I have heard of “native seeds” and “homegrown seeds,” but I think that because they are not familiar to us, it is difficult to convey their value to the public. There are only a few growers who do their own seed production.
Until I met Iwasaki-san, I also had the impression that native seeds were a bit rugged and difficult to handle. I think the reason why there are so few farmers who do self-pollination is because it requires a lot of labor. The way self-pollination works is after planting and harvesting from a seed, you wait until the flowers have bloomed and only then do you take the seeds out. Leaving your farmland dormant while waiting for the seeds to be ready is not economically profitable, and moreover the process of removing the seeds itself is both time- and labor-intensive.
Farming seems to be an incredible amount of hard work regardless of the agricultural method, and in our current moment of climate change with more potential weather-related crises, self-seeding seems all the more risky.
That’s right. In fact, Iwasaki-san told us that the rainy and dry seasons are becoming more and more extreme each year, and the patterns are becoming more and more difficult to read. All of Iwasaki-san’s fields are cultivated in the open, so they are very sensitive to these variable conditions. Nevertheless, he says, “I have no alternative but to adapt with nature and create a way of farming best coexisting with it.” Working on their own, Iwasaki-san and his wife utilize as many as 80 varieties of seeds each year. With the same yield as a regular farmer, I think it is quite amazing he is able to make a living from his own seed production.