Saturday, June 27, 2009

BTO: The good Earth

Business Times - 27 Jun 2009

The good Earth

Perfectionist farmers and chefs turn out amazing flavour from superfresh produce in bountiful Hokkaido. By Jaime Ee

YOU say 'puh-tay-to', I say 'poh-tay-to' but Taku Umemura says, 'Try spending 20 years researching and developing the perfect hybrid before you can really call this a potato, mister.'

Okay, so he doesn't really say that but in his own Japanese perfectionist way, he might as well have. Farmer Umemura's late father was an agri-scientist obsessed with the perfect potato, spending a good 20 years researching different varieties of spuds before hitting paydirt with two variants said to be superior even to the Danshoku potato, Hokkaido's reigning king of starch.

Continuing his father's legacy is what drives Umemura to tend his tiny 4.8 hectare farm (1/20th the size of a regular farm) in Chitose with his wife, growing high quality potatoes, pumpkins, sweetcorn and crisp salad vegetables and herbs that are sought after by over 100 restaurants around Japan. His mission? To grow the best-tasting vegetables ever and do his father proud in his life-long quest for plant perfection.

Fierce passion may ooze from every pore of his tanned, weather-beaten skin, but Umemura is not alone in his quest. He is just one of many farmers in Hokkaido - not to mention the rest of Japan - for whom hard work and pride in their produce seem to be hard-wired into their genes. Be it a humble potato, a crisp white asparagus or a sugar-sweet strawberry - the obsession with creating the best is what makes Hokkaido one of the most bountiful gardens on earth.

In fact, one bite into Farm Umemura's Kita Akari potato - with its smooth mellow flesh - or the pale orange Inka no Mezane with its surreal chestnut-like sweetness is enough to make any overseas visitor want to buy up a bagful and take it on the next flight home - a reaction that is exactly what Hokkaido wants, says Yoshiyasu Imazu, chief director of the local branch of Jetro - Japan External Trade Organisation.

So gung ho are they about ramping up their food exports that Jetro Japan invited importers from around the world - particularly Asia - to a major food exhibition in Sapporo last week, where 300 Hokkaido food companies convened for that crucial introduction to new markets.

Agriculture is a key growth area for Hokkaido besides tourism, says Seiroku Takizawa, chairman of the Hokkaido International Business Centre. 'This is the 25th event we've organised and this year's is the biggest in the whole of Japan,' he adds. With traditional industries like coal and copper mining dying out after World War II, the prefecture has since looked to its fertile lands - it has close to one-fourth of Japan's total arable land - to literally grow its economy.

'We grow everything from wheat, corn, potatoes, strawberries, melons and we have the largest dairy community,' says Mr Seiroku. But what we need is to grow our exports, especially to Asia, where we think the demand is.'

At the same time, the task at hand is to 'get local producers to look beyond Japan and increase production for export,' says Jetro Hokkaido's Mr Yoshiyasu. 'The focus is on premium quality - as people become more affluent, the demand for such products increases and Hokkaido is in a prime position to meet that demand.'

Julie Haw certainly agrees. The general manager of Frosts Food and Beverage Pte Ltd was one of the Singapore importers invited to Sapporo and is looking to import frozen seafood like scallops and dairy products. 'We were very impressed with the quality of the products and amazed by the way the Japanese seem to 'redefine' familiar products. If you think you know what caramel pudding tastes like - well, think again. They do that with their fruits too. Melons, grapes, strawberries and persimmons from Japan never fail to amaze me.'

She'll certainly have a willing market awaiting her products too. For the past week at Isetan Scotts, Japanese food-obsessed Singaporeans have been swarming its supermarket, turned into a bustling marketplace complete with some 30 export-savvy Hokkaido traders personally flying in to ply their ice cream, seafood and candy to eager Singaporeans ready to draw their wallets at the first sight of free samples.

Of all the different Japanese food fairs that Isetan organises, the Hokkaido ones do the best business, says public relations manager Gerard Goh. The store has done 11 Hokkaido fairs and this one is the biggest - not just in Singapore but outside of Japan, he adds. The best part is - the traders are hungry to break into the local market, so things are priced almost the same as they are in Japan, or even cheaper.

Despite the variety offered, it's just skimming the surface of what Hokkaido has to offer. A lack of store space means there's a limit to what can be brought in, says Mr Goh. Which means that what gets imported would have to be mainstream products with popular appeal and price, rather than niche artisanal products like say, Mr Umemura's chestnut-flavoured potatoes.

As Ms Haw puts it: 'Importers assess products based on the price-quality-shelf-life proposition, i.e. what is the potential market size and acceptance of the product. Small farmers tend to sell on quality and traceability - if their prices are uncompetitive, they will have to wait for our market to mature to the stage where we're willing to pay for what they stand for.' Unless of course you're talking about very unique products like Yubari melons or Hokkaido strawberries, which people are more inclined to pay a premium for. But 'for 'conceptual' products like organic produce, any serious difference in cost would be harder for the practical Singaporean consumer to accept.'

That being the case, what's a die-hard foodie to do? Rent a car with English GPS, or hire a driver and interpreter and trawl the countryside of Hokkaido in search of freshness at its peak.

Stop #1

Sakurai Orchards 
Yoyama 203, Minami-ku, Sapporo 
Tel 011-596-2292

When was the last time you picked a ripe strawberry off its vine and popped it into your mouth without washing it or shuddering as its sharp acidicity makes you curse whoever created the strawberry's image as a sweet luscious fruit?

If never, then it will be an eye-opener to eat a strawberry at Sakurai Orchards, where an entire patch is dedicated to visitors who can either pluck and eat as much as they can then and there, or pay to bring the fruit home with them. Farmer Mayama Mizuyuki is also there to watch with pride as you marvel at how sweet his Kentaro strawberries are, and how they are virtually pesticide-free (apart from a brief spraying when the berries just start to form).

Cherries come out later in July, while green asparagus is harvested from early May to the end of June. Once they start popping out of the earth, they have to be quickly harvested as they can grow 5cm to 6cm a day. The farm is so small that only 20kg of asparagus is picked a day but that means prime quality, pesticide-free greens for the super-picky Japanese consumer or visitor lucky enough to grab a few packs from the farm shop that also sells jams and free-range eggs.

Stop #2

Kobayashi Shuzo 
109, Nishiki 3-chome, Kuriyama-cho, Yubari-gun 
Tel 0123-72-1001


The slowdown of the mining industry and changing tastes have led to a dampened demand for sake, but the tradition continues at Kobayashi Shuzo sake brewery where soft Hokkaido water and locally-grown rice are brewed into the prefecture's signature light sake. Chief brewer Seiya Wakita says that Osaka used to be prime sake area, but of late Hokkaido has been gaining a foothold in the quality stakes. Still, production isn't quite what it used to be, much to the chagrin of pickle manufacturers which depend on sake lees (the dregs remaining after the sake is filtered) to make their pickles. 'They don't want the sake, they just want the lees,' he smiles.

While you can tour the premises and buy some of its award-winning sake at its retail shop, the real draw is the brewery's in-house soba restaurant that's housed in a cute wooden house just across the street from the brewery. The restaurant - run by kindly Japanese ladies in aprons - serves up soba noodles made with water used for making sake. It's hard to tell how that makes a difference, but the noodles are deliciously chewy-tender and served with perfectly made tempura that could put local tempura joint Tenshin to shame (it must be the water they use for the tempura batter). Even if you're not into sake, the soba - and the charming eatery - is worth a visit.

Stop #3

ZcCot Patisserie 
2-20, Minami 4 Nishi 22, Chuo-ku, Sapporo 
Tel 050-7532-7300

Hokkaido is a pastry chef's heaven, especially when you're working with rich, decadent milk, cheese and cream from the island's pampered dairy community. Add the talent of chef Kazuya Wakayama and you get pastries like his light-as-air creamy cheese mousse on a biscuit base stuffed with a tart Hascap (local berry) marshmallow and coated in a red berry flavoured gelatine. The cake won him the top prize in the local Sapporo Sweets Grand Prix - where top pastry chefs across the island vie to create the best pastry using only local produce. He well deserves the award for his clever blending of blue, cream and camembert cheese and sour cream with the tart berry and crisp cookie base. Check out too his fresh caramels studded with bitter cocoa nibs and range of fresh cream cakes which are seriously dreamy. He also has a store at Daimaru's food hall in Sapporo station, which is good for those who can't get to the shop per se. If you want to check out what previous winning pastries taste like, the Prince Hotel's Pikake Cafe sells a range, identified by a little chocolate Sapporo flag on top. But if you have to choose, stick to chef Kazuya's confections and you won't go wrong.

Stop #4

Asken Co Ltd 
2-31 Oiwake-honcho, Abira-cho 
Tel 0145-26-6870

White asparagus may be a European import but Hokkaido asparagus is gaining a following for its lower price and sweetness, says Ms Yagi, the feisty lady owner of Asken farm, the largest asparagus producer on the island. The season is very short, lasting just the month of June. An unseasonably cool summer (temperatures hovering around 14C ) also means a smaller crop because white asparagus grow best underground in earth that's around 20C.

White asparagus cost more than double that of green ones because of the labour intensive harvesting methods. While green ones grow above ground and can be machine harvested, workers have to go out early in the morning to the white asparagus fields where the precious spears break through the surface of the raised earth mounds that they grow in. Using metal trowels, workers dig into the earth and ease out each spear one by one.

Each morning, 10 workers harvest 300 kg of asparagus, racing to get them before the spears poke out of the earth and get exposed to sunlight which turns their tips a faint purple. The harvest is then brought to a selection area and packed into boxes for their trip to French and Italian restaurants across the country. If you're more familiar with softer, mellower tasting white asparagus, the Hokkaido version will surprise you with its sheer fresh flavour. Because the asparagus here is a different species from the European variety, biting into a raw, freshly picked spear results in a clean, almost apple-like sweetness and crunch.

It was no mean feat convincing European restaurants in Tokyo to use Hokkaido white asparagus and Ms Yagi is proud to confirm that they are now seeking out the local asparagus. Maybe one day, Singapore importers will seek her out too.

Stop #5

Muminsha Ltd 
141 Hayakita-omachi, Abira-cho 
Tel 0145-22-2439

If you like cheese but your taste buds lean neither to processed cheddar nor ripe French cheeses that can make your toes curl, then Hokkaido cheese offers a happy compromise. Muminsha is an award-winning maker of camembert, mozzarella and blue cheese, all carefully made in super-sterile surroundings

Local milk is mixed with enzymes until it separates into whey and curds which they then filter and turn into the different kinds of cheese. The flavours are very mild, although the smoked camembert has an odd metallic tang that not everybody will like. But no matter, there's lots of variety to choose from at its retail shop-restaurant (which serves pork from whey-fed pigs) - and make sure you sample the pillowy soft cheese ice cream.

Stop #6 Hokkaido Hakone Farm Higashioka 1201, Chitose 0123-21-3066 A place for families, this is the only working ranch in Japan that rears Mediterranean water buffalo and makes mozzarella cheese from their milk. There's a farmhouse restaurant that serves organic vegetables grown there and home made sausages. Kids (and adults) can get a kick out of churning their own butter or making fresh caramel candy by cooking milk jam, cream and sugar into a toffee-like paste. There's also a modified tractor that takes you on a tour of the farm, past a cow with swollen udders that you can milk, corn and pumpkin fields and meet the resident farm dogs and their puppies. Touristy, but nice clean fun.

Stop #7

Farm Umemura Neshikoshi 
2596-4, Chitose 
Tel 01233-28-1030

It's nothing to look at really, but farmer Taku Umemura will happily tell you about the precious potatoes developed by his late father. They really are a must-try and if you can't buy any, head to La Sante restaurant in town and ask them to serve it.

Stop #8

Farmers Japan Co Ltd 
102, Kitakashiwagicho 3-chome, Eniwa 
Tel 0123-32-1555

Unless they get accredited by the AVA, chances of tasting these additive-free sausages and hams are pretty slim, so eat your fill here. Beef and pork products are made with just fresh meat and spices, with no chemical preservatives found in other processed meat brands. The company also has farms which rear free range animals so they can ensure the quality of the meat. The result? Plump and juicy ham, garlic and herb sausages and miso marinated kurobuta pork. It's hard to believe how frozen food can taste so fresh.

Stop #9

La Sante Restaurant 
1 1-6 Miyanomori, Chuo-ku, Sapporo 
Tel 011-612-9003.

The piece de resistance of any trip to Hokkaido. The best that the island has to offer, cooked for you by chef Takahashi Takeshi. About 85 per cent of the ingredients used by chef Takahashi are sourced locally. It could be seafood like sweet botan shrimp tartare, or white asparagus done three ways - with crunchy hoki clam and scallop; in a mushroom and uni sauce; wrapped in bamboo leaves and baked in a salt crustbaked in a salt. Early corn is turned into a delicate soup served with home made bread made from local wheat, potatoes from Farm Umemura are served fried and mashed, while lamb - a rare animal in Japan - is sourced from an area called Tokachi, beyond the mountains of Hokkaido. Finish off with selected home grown cheeses and delicious Hokkaido dessert wine. What could be better? Bringing all this freshness home with you. If only.

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