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There are only so many jars of traditional British pickle you can consume in a year, and my annual pickling has in recent harvests expanded to include a number of Asian varieties. This recipe book, The Perfect Pickle is a well thumbed and stained inspiration, as was our visit to Japan in 2006. One of the most magical Japanese pickles I tasted, and sadly the nost hopeless to replicate at home, was one made with rice wine lees (the stuff leftover from saki brewing) - an unforgettable, ancient flavour with all the complexity and more besides of any European fermented food. At Lawson Park we regularly make kimchi (a fiery and restorative Korean short-term pickle) for which use the legendary Madhur Jaffrey's recipe, and my nuka box (a paste of fermented rice bran into which vegetables are buried) is now in its third year, having even had to travel to Germany to help cater a Myvillages seminar.

Just now, we have a great many vegetables still in the ground that are fast deteriorating in the stormy weather. Purple shiso is a stunning-looking plant most often grown here in the UK in bedding schemes. We grow it in the polytunnel (as well as the green variety) and now is the time to harvest the large fragrant leaves for winter use. This year I'm again simply layering them flat in a glass jar with miso paste, using a flat knife as if I'm buttering a whole load of sandwiches. It'll last the whole winter, and the mix makes all sorts of delicious soup bases and dressings.

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Shiso preserved in miso
Shiso preserved in miso

One Straw Revolution

Mon 29 Mar 2010

After a lot of recommendations I have just finished the seminal 'natural farming' text 'One Straw Revolution' by Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukoaka, who for some 50 years pioneered a form of 'hands-off' cultivation on his mountain site which gave yields equal to conventional intensive rice-paddy techniques. In a nutshell, this was achieved by allowing 'weeds' and beneficial green manures to colonise all space between rice or grain plants, and by mulching all harvested fields immediately with the straw of the harvested plants before sowing the follow-up crop. He also advocates growing vegetables in semi-wild mixed areas, allowing self-seeding. He apparently transformed his arid mountain soil over a decade of this cycle. This approach is embedded (as he explains in the book) within a holistic lifestyle of respect for natural cycles, foraging for wild foods, eating according to season.

Having spent time in the mountainous farming village of Toge in north west Japan, I can vouch for the intensive rice-farming still practiced by diminishing numbers of elderly Japanese farmers. As I was there mid-summer, I didn't witness the busiest times but it was clear how hard it was to maintain these vertiginous paddies and to produce the prized rice. The endeavour of food production brought the whole community together year-round, and it was an intensely moving experience to live amongst them and feel this intimate connection with land even for a short time.

I haven't yet looked into how Fukoaka's evident success was disseminated amongst the Japanese farming community, but in his book he cites many clashes with chemical companies and government agencies. It would be depressing reading if it were not for his moving accounts of the satisfaction he gained from his simple relationship with his land.

With memories of the Toge villagers' excitement at spring's earliest murmers, and thinking of Fukoaka's belief in the spirituality of foraging on one's own patch, instead of disposing of the many Arctium Lappa (burdock) seedlings coming up in our fruit cage, I carefully pulled them out. These have now been boiled lightly and pickled in a mix of mirin, soy sauce and rice vinegar.


Now onto working out a way to translate his agricultural techniques to the northern European climate of Lawson Park....

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Winter's last roots gathered
Winter's last roots gathered