Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Field Trip! – Obuse Town, Nagano

series of posts from visiting interesting little (and large) cafes, food-related establishments and other places of inspiration.

As part of the 2013 Bramley Apple Tour I wrote about previously organised by the Japan branch of the Royal Horticultural Society we got to have a bit of a look around the atmospheric Obuse town centre and it was so pretty and interesting that I thought I’d do a bit of a write-up in case anyone else wanted to make a trip up there. There is also an excellent .pdf guide in English about Obuse here.

Bramley and a friend - the Obuse nasu

Going to Obuse can be a bit of a train geek’s dream – I didn’t think I was a train geek at all, but I was all 'wow!' and 'squee!’ on the way there, first on the shinkansen to Nagano, and then on a cute and dinky “romance car” style train with viewing cars at the front and back. It being during the week I got the whole observation car to myself. It was only a few hundred yen to get to Obuse from Nagano and quite bubble-era luxurious. There are regular trains on this line too, I was just lucky with timing. Oh, and no paying with suica cards on this line! Yes this was a proper field trip, with real tickets to be clipped by real station masters.

We were greeted by the tour leaders from Obuse-ya at the station and ferried by bus to a local restaurant called Hanaya (flower shop) which had a view onto a lush green English style garden, for the welcome greetings and a Bramley-themed lunch.

The food at Hanaya was outstanding, with innovative uses of Bramley apples and other local ingredients, such as a peculiarly rotund type of aubergine that is grown here. The meal started with a delicate salad with prosciutto and what seemed to be Bramley oroshi.

The soup was pumpkin potage with crab and Bramley.

I had chosen the fish course and it arrived as a pie that also contained Bramley apple and was served with a curry sauce and (partially concealed in this photo) a slice of Obuse aubergine painted with miso paste. This course was excellent.

Crepe with Bramley puree and ice cream.

After lunch we visited a miso factory and shop for our hands-on miso paste taiken! I had a vague notion that miso was a fermented bean product, and knew that I absolutely love it, particularly as soup, but I did not have a clue how it was made or that it was so easy.

We squished cooked soya beans into a paste, added lots of salt and malted rice / kome kouji / 米麹 along with some of the cooking water, and mixed well with our hands. We then took turns throwing big blobs of it into the base of a bucket until all our mixture was in the same pot, and this was to be stored for several months to ferment, at which point it will be posted to us.

Barrels and weights used in making miso

The gentleman from the miso shop who lead the activity explained that Japanese people are eating less traditional food than before and that the consumption of soy sauce (which the company also used to make) and miso is in decline. He mentioned various health benefits of miso including a study that suggested that it does not increase blood pressure, despite it being so salty (possibly due to the effect of fermentation with lactobacillus - this is unclear, or perhaps because salt might not actually lead to high blood pressure!). However the only conclusive study I was able to find about miso and blood pressure was done on rats rather than people. Either way it's tasty stuff and well worth eating regardless of possible special health benefits.

With many types of traditionally made miso taking months, even years to mature this is a real ‘slow food’, and with the koji fungus in the kome koji as a kind of 'starter' added to the mix, it struck me as being similar in some ways to sourdough bread. Fermented foods are enjoying a bit of a renaissance in the UK, perhaps miso will be part of the trend there too.

Buckets of different types of miso paste

The shop has excellent miso for sale (and online), indeed you can find Obuse miso all around the town. Speaking of which, in the afternoon after our trip to the Bramley orchard we had free time in the centre of the small town.

Miso shop near the factory

Aside from apples, chestnuts and miso, Obuse is famous for having the Hokusai-kan museum, which is home to many of Hokusai's famous prints and paintings and would be worth a trip on its own. The area around the museum is an extremely pretty and well-designed artistic impression of the historic town itself.

Many of the buildings are in fact new, but they have been made to have a traditional appearance. Some of the shops are a beautiful mix of old and new so it’s a lovely area to stroll about in, trying different flavours of ice cream, tasting sake and buying snacks to take home. I can imagine it would be quite busy during national holidays and certain times of the year. Another particularly nice area is around the sake brewery's 煙突 / entotsu  / chimney, which has a cute courtyard, entotsu cafe and some unique buildings.

We rounded off our whistle-stop tour of Obuse town with a visit to a well known patisserie, Rond-to, where we sampled a delicious French take on a Bramley apple cake. It’s an airy little cake shop with a café and a couple of seats outside in the European style. The property used to be a fish shop and so they had a lovely big kitchen where I could peak through at the staff having fun preparing items for the shop.

Other things in the area that I did not get chance to visit on this trip were the nearby winery, and a hospital with an interesting story connected to a bakery.

The story goes that there was a Canadian nurse working with tuberculosis patients at the Anglican Mission hospital here in Obuse in the 1930s. Apparently she liked English Chelsea buns, and missed being able to have them when she was in Japan. A local baker attempted to make the buns for her based on her description, but they weren't right. He tried many times without success before finally producing something so perfectly ‘Chelsea bun’ that it moved the nurse to tears. The hospital (still functioning) and the original bakery is still there to visit, and there is a lovely children’s book with the story that is written in English and Japanese.

International relations through baking, it's possible! :)

Bi-lingual story of Chelsea buns in Obuse

For even more information about Obuse and a local onsen listing have a look here.

No comments:

Post a Comment