Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Speaking at the RHSJ Bramley tour in Obuse 2014

Last week my Bramley apple adventure continued when I was invited by the Japan branch of the Royal Horticultural Society to talk at this year's RHSJ Bramley apple tour in Obuse, Nagano. Readers with good memories might recall my excitement at going along to the same tour last year as a participant, and my report about visiting the orchard there for the first time. It was a real treat to be able to visit the orchard with many friends from the Bramley Fan Club in Japan, thanks for a great day!

This year I was to give a little talk at the orchard, and bring some Bramley-themed treats for the participants to take home as souvenirs. I settled on apple cake and small apple crumble pies (forgot to photo, oops), as well as a whole pie.

On the way to Nagano, the sky threatened rain and by the time we arrived in Obuse it was properly pouring down, just like we were in the UK (Obuse is pronounced o-bu-say by the way, rather than sounding like "abuse." Just in case you were wondering).

View from the train, could be the UK or Japan :)

Chef Ichimura's lunch at Hanaya was as fantastic and creative as it was last year - it's amazing what thoughtful Japanese chefs do with our humble apple pie/apple crumble fruit!

I was particularly struck by the sushi piece of the 3-bite starter. It was so soft and delicately flavoured.

After lunch we dodged a few puddles and went to find the tree that Celia-san (Great Granddaughter of Henry Merryweather, the first person to notice and begin selling Bramley apples in the UK in the late 1800s) planted on her trip to Obuse last year. The young tree appears to be doing very well, and is in a nice spot, visible from the restaurant.

From there to the orchard! The rain had let up a little and so we were able to pick our own fruits to take home. As we were leaving a heavy fog rolled in and that too felt brisk and British. I don't remember seeing fog in Tokyo - it's quite a world away being up in the hills of Nagano.

The talks were to be given in warmer and drier surroundings back at the apple packing plant.


First Arai-san, the gentleman responsible for bringing the Bramley to Japan officially over 20 years ago spoke of how apples of all varieties had been important in his life, and how it was a struggle initially to convince many apple growers in Japan to take a chance on the strange and sour British fruit. It takes a few years from the initial work and investment until the trees will bear fruit and so it's quite a commitment for the farmers to make.


Next one of those apple growers who did take the plunge, Oshima-san, talked about a year in the life of caring for the Bramleys in Japan, and how one year's crop can differ considerably to another. He'd also brought along a *huge* Bramley. I thought it might be the biggest in the world (that record was in 1997 to a 1.67kg beast), but it must certainly be the biggest in Japan. Amazing.

Me :)

For my talk, I decided to have a few different sections - what Bramleys are to British people, and bit about the history - from the chance seedling growing from a pip planted by a little girl playing in her Nottinghamshire garden in 1809, to the involvement of Henry Merryweather, the extensive planting across the UK in the late 1800s, and the important nutritional role the Bramley (and all manner of home-grown fare) played during the wars - all going some way to explain how they have come to be such a widely loved and commonplace ingredient it is for the UK today.

I also talked about growing up with Bramley apple trees in my garden, and how when I saw ohanami on TV as a child, I thought that people in Japan were picnicking under apple trees.

Finally, I gave some tips on cooking with Bramleys, from the British home baking viewpoint - that we usually cook them down before adding them to pies, as they will cook to a puree anyway during baking, which leaves behind large cavities in your pie if you used the slices raw like for American and Dutch style apple pies.

At the end of the talk I shared the large British-style Bramley apple pie with the participants before they rushed to get the bus back to the station.

This year I was determined to also try visit the Iwasaki bakery, home to the famous Chelsea buns from the book I heard about on the tour last year.  (See the end of this post for the story about the Canadian nurse and the Obuse Chelsea bun connection :) ).

Arai-san was kind enough to give me this monster of a Chelsea bun, and it made a very hearty breakfast the next morning. It was really good with the crunchy nuts on the bottom!

As I left for the day, look what I was given as a thank you for the talk! It's now in pride of place at the shop, at least until I work out what I want to make with it ;) Nyam!

Ginny is pretty shocked at the size too

Monday, July 28, 2014

Omatsuri! Being part of the local community

I love having a shop in Higashi Azabu! So close to the centre of things with Azabu Juban and Roppongi close by, but tucked away in quiet backstreets that have new discoveries round each corner and which are home to quite a villagey atmosphere.

There are various circles of community structure in Tokyo, from the 区 / ku / ward-level organizations, to the 町会 / cho kai / town committee groups. 'Cho' are often just a few blocks of buildings in a region of a ward (confused yet..? :) For example, our Higashi Azabu 2-cho me, is in greater Higashi Azabu, which is itself in Minato ward).

Some 'cho' have official community groups that some residents pay a small fee to be part of, and who organise things like local festivals, volunteer activities and various other smaller-scale activities. There are also often local women's groups / 婦人会 / fujinkai (literally translates as something like "housewife group") that can have a great deal to do with the cho kai and their activities. These feel a little like the British WI groups, but without the emphasis on jam and baking.

Pitching-in at a recent matsuri :)

Of course, there are also areas that have no such community groups, and being involved with them is voluntary. When I moved into my premises I had no idea that such things existed and remained ignorant until it came time for the local festival.

Wrapping yaki soba for the festival

I helped out packing up yaki soba with the other local ladies on the morning of the festival, as a way to meet other neighbours and make some friends. I also gave a small donation to the event which resulted in the next surprise - my name and that of MonCre on the wall outside the festival desk in beautiful script. Can you spot us? :)

The festival itself was a hot, busy and fun day. This kind of festival has a few stalls like the larger events you may have been to, but the food was given free of charge (you just pick up coloured tokens at the festival desk) to the people who come, rather than being sold. There is a kids', and later on an adults' 御神輿 / omikoshi /  - the carrying of a heavy, ornate portable shrine around the area and up to the local shrine and back. Being Higashi Azabu we went right past the foot of Tokyo tower, pretty impressive!

It's amazing to me to find such a local and community spirit in the heart of Tokyo - and something I hadn't known about this area before I chose my spot to set up shop. Everyone knows each other and looks out for each other, and they look out for me too! - Seeing I was low on 100 yen coins one open bakery day, one kind lady went back to her shop and came back with a bag full for me. Since the shop has had a few days with long queues following my (very brief) debut on NHK, there has been quite a buzz among the neighbours about the area becoming more lively, I'm glad they are excited too. :) Another special thing about this particular location is that they hold a children's festival for Halloween! Something to look forward to later in the year.

Anyway this is just a quick post, as I thought other people might like to know such things as cho kai and fujin kai exist, so you can actively seek to join in or avoid their activities as necessary, according to your fancy.

Aww, kids' omikoshi :)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Filming for NHK! Gretel no Kamado

I was recently lucky enough to be asked to take part in a programme on NHK's E TV - NHK is the Japanese national broadcasting, like Japan's BBC, and the E TV channel is their educational channel.

The programme, called Gretel's Magical Oven グレーテルのかまど / Gureteru no kamado, is a long-running series that looks at a new sweet-related story each episode, and in explaining about the dessert, shows information about it and how to make them.

This programme was to be about lemon meringue pie, and specifically Nigel Slater's childhood memories of the dish as detailed in his autobiography, Toast. They asked me to try to give a bit of insight into what lemons, not native to the UK, mean to British people, and to demonstrate a couple of examples of other lemon-themed sweets that are made at home in England.

I've never been on TV before, I'm not really the type to want do so, but I liked the idea that the programme is about the stories and culture behind that week's sweet. I felt it was a great chance to make progress in Mornington Crescent's aim of 'bringing authentic British baked goods and their interesting stories to people in Japan' - to many people!

I prepared some of the items in advance, and finished others off while they were filming. At around 2 hours it was all quite quick and efficient, just a couple lamps, camera and mic, and no famous タレント / tarento / talent were present to make me feel more nervous than I had to be. I was especially nervous before they arrived, but once we got going and I got used to ignoring the camera it wasn't too bad at all.

Behind the scenes...!

It was interesting to see behind the scenes of a programme - the decisions made about arranging items and backgrounds, how different shots are filmed, and what information they wanted to know. With the filming complete I felt it had gone ok. I just hoped they got what they needed, and that they wouldn't use the clip of me miming milking a cow when I tried to describe old fashioned syllabub! Oops. :)

Filling the butterfly cakes with lemon curd

In the end it turned out great! I watched the programme and got all excited when my jar of lemon curd was used at the beginning. Then, at the very end there was a "tea break" section of the show where they introduced me (wow!) and showed me making the butterfly fairy cakes with lemon curd, along with the other desserts I'd made. And no milking a cow shot, phew.

It was a great experience and I've already had contact with some people who saw the show and looked me up, how amazing! TV is really powerful in Japan!

Monday, July 7, 2014

My sister's wedding macaron tower!

Ah yes, for my sister's wedding, there was a macaron tower too!

I tease my little sis about being a bridezilla, she's not at all, but she sounded like one for a moment when I got a picture text of a 10-tier tower one day last year, and the message "oh, you do these macaron things don't you, how easy would this be?" Heh.

Tower stand sourced, we then practiced the carrying of unfilled shells in tupperware in hand luggage at Christmas. No problem! Well, no problem apart from the fact that 10-tiers is about 240 macarons, which is 480 halves.. or quite a lot of tupperware in hand luggage. :)

Just some of the many macarons for the hand luggage

Half of the shells were filled with a rich, dark chocolate ganache flavoured with my Nana's favourite, Cointreau, and the others are filled with white chocolate ganache with vanilla beans and spiked with my Mum's current favourite tipple, Amaretto.

Being bridesmaid to a busy bride who was already a little late for the ceremony meant that helping her into the dress and making sure the borrowed, blue, old and new items were all present and correct took priority over arranging the sweets display, and so my partner was left with the task of assembling and filling the tower.

The tower was to be part of the welcome drinks table, to greet guests after the ceremony along with the mimosas and as a snack for people in the long gap between breakfast and the "wedding breakfast" dinner which was to follow later in the day.

They were a big hit! We had filled the shells the day before so they would be perfectly 'slightly chewy' for the event. My Nana had about five of them and the photographers stashed a few away to take home. Excellent!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

My sister's wedding cake (part 2)

Following on from the post about the making of the cakes, you now join me for part 2, as we assemble the cake at the venue on the big day!

The cakes survived the trip, a little wrinkled of fondant from the packaging but quite intact. I got to work with a cake smoother, applied another layer and we were good to go. So here it is, the finished thing!

I had made all the flowers in Tokyo and packed them lightly in tissues in cake boxes placed carefully in my hand luggage. I came to the venue prepared with a batch of royal icing to 'glue' the cakes together, stick the ribbon on and pipe the finishing touches.

The venue gave me the use of a storeroom for a while to set the cake up before the ceremony so I could get it just right.

The flowers were secured to the cake with very nifty little flower spikes that I ordered in England, much less bulky than the chunky white Wilton ones more commonly available in Japan.

You need to use something like a flower spike to keep the wires away from the cake, so that no rust or other contaminant can form inside the cake.

Along with the calla lilies mentioned in the previous post, I added peonies because they are beautiful made in sugar. The bling ribbon, sugar diamonds and royal icing pearls might be a touch too far for more conservative tastes, but featured separately on a few of the cakes my sister and I liked when we looked around at the kind of thing we fancied creating for her.

I was so relieved that each step of the journey went without a hitch. The trip from Japan, and to the country hall where the wedding was held. Assembled it then made the trip down a couple of sweeping flights of stairs into the dining room to be on show, and then to the dance floor where the cutting ceremony would take place under the disco lights. :)

Disco cake :)

I'm not sure why exactly, but it's supposed to be bad luck for the bride and groom to remove the knife from the cake after they make their ceremonial incision, and so they called me up to take it out.

The day was full of these little superstitions - she had an *old* sixpence in her left shoe all day, that my Dad had placed there, which she had *borrowed* from me. Her *new* thing was a bracelet Dad gave to her when he could see her for the first time all dressed up, and the *blue* item was good luck wishes written on the bottom of her shoes by her bridesmaids in blue ink. And of course, the groom had not been allowed to see the wedding dress until the day, and had not seen my sister since the previous day :) My sister awoke to the sound of birdsong, and that is supposed to be lucky. It was all quite fun.

At the very last moment, as the staff moved the cake from the dance floor they tripped on the tablecloth and my heart jumped for a moment, but it was all fine. They cut the bottom fruit and middle chocolate tier into the traditional 1-inch sticks of cake that are commonly used in British weddings and served it up with a sandwich buffet.

The newlyweds have saved the top tier of the cake, as is tradition. British wedding cake is pretty indestructible, and couples are supposed to be able to save the smallest tier for their first Christmas together, their first anniversary, or christening of their first child. I've heard of people saving cakes for years... Though those are probably royal iced rather than fondant-covered cakes however.

Traditional portion size at British weddings

Both cakes had held up fantastically during the trip, and tasted great! (I'm quite strict with myself and so it's an accomplishment that I was satisfied ;) ) I needn't have worried about the brief 1-month maturation of the fruit cakes, as they were lovely, moist and flavoursome. Phew, my job as big sister and baker done :)

I'm so happy I could do something special for my beautiful little sister's big day. Congrats sis!