When it comes to things local, New England has a bounty of good food. On a recent visit, I looked forward to driving down the country roads and picking up some artisan cheeses, maple syrup and apple cider to bring back to Los Angeles. Instead I came home with a carry-on bag full of something totally unexpected: miso, made in the Japanese farmhouse tradition in Conway, Mass.
I met Christian and Gaella Elwell, owners, founders and managers of the South River Miso Co., at the annual Northeastern Rice Conference held in Vermont; they invited me to come visit their farm afterward.
Miso is the staple Japanese high-protein seasoning made of koji — fermented rice; salt; and soybeans, barley, or other grains. I usually buy miso at the Japanese market or when I go back to Japan. On occasion, I make my own, as my mother did, but not as often as I would like to. In the old days, almost every household in Japan made its own miso. I keep a good stock of miso, at least two or three varieties, because we like to have miso soup for breakfast every day, as part of my family’s health regimen, and also use it to make salad dressings and marinades. Miso offers a nutritious balance of natural carbohydrates, essential oils, minerals, vitamins and protein of the highest quality, containing all the essential amino acids. Finding another variety of miso is as exciting as coming upon an unfamiliar cheese.
I realized I had once tried ordering South River Miso Co.’s miso online, but because the company’s miso is unpasteurized and doesn’t travel well in warm weather, they don’t ship to the West Coast during the summer. I learned, though, that even with such down time on the West Coast, they have a loyal following around the country and sell out of the 70 tons of miso they produce each year.
Miso part of macrobiotic lifestyle
The Elwells have been making miso for more than 30 years. The couple met in Boston in 1976, when they were students of the macrobiotic way of life as taught by Michio and Aveline Kushi. The macrobiotic lifestyle promotes a diet of freshly prepared seasonal whole foods, which includes having miso soup for breakfast. Back then, miso was available only from Japan, and the Elwells wondered, “What would it be like to make miso in this country, right here in New England?” Such inquisitiveness led them to the late Naboru Muramoto, a macrobiotic healer in Glen Ellen, Calif., with whom they studied miso making for three months in 1979. A year later, the Elwells went back to New England to start their miso-making operation, and they have been at it ever since.
As the story goes, their first shipment of miso was packed in an unheated barn and hauled across the shallow icy waters of South River on a horse-drawn wagon to meet the UPS truck at the farm’s roadside. This may sound wild, but there are young farmers living across from the Elwells who choose to farm with horses, so things haven’t changed much in this part of the country for good reasons.
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The Elwells’ miso workshop has a view of their vegetable garden and a field of flowering buckwheat. There is a strikingly beautiful rice paddy in the shape of a circle. In ancient Japan, the crops grown on round paddies were offerings to the gods. Some people see the round paddy as the reflection of the moon. The rice grown in the Elwells’ paddy is not used for making miso, but I am certain that having such serene setting does good things to nourish your spirit .
Various shades of light caramel to dark brown glass jugs topped with lids are the first thing you see when you enter the South River Miso Co.’s fermentation room. The malty and sweet smell emanates from the large, handcrafted 3- to 5-ton wooden vats of miso which take up most of the room. “Try some of this miso tamari,” says Christian, gently pouring out the dark liquid from the glass jug into a little cup. “It is the puddle of liquid that settles at the middle of the miso vats,” he explains with a gentle demeanor. I take a sip. Like miso, miso tamari has a malty aroma and sweet taste. It’s like soy sauce but less sharp and delicious.
Miso requires a two-step fermentation process. To start, lightly milled organic brown rice or barley grains are inoculated with koji-kin or aspergillus mold. The inoculated grain is stacked in traditional wooden trays and fermented inside the muro, a temperature-controlled room that heats up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the optimum temperatures for making koji. The production workers monitor the temperature, which goes up as the rice ferments; it takes about 36 hours to complete the fermentation process. To the koji, he mixes in sun-dried sea salt and cooked soybeans or other beans such as garbanzo and azuki, which are slowly cooked in a caldron for 20 hours over hand-fed wood fires in a brick oven. Christian and his workers combine the mixture by stamping on the beans with their feet, which gives the miso better texture than if they were done by machine.
The fermented grains, salt and cooked beans are combined and transferred to the wooden vats to ferment for anywhere from three weeks for the Kyoto-style, sweet white miso to three years for the darker, savory brown rice, chickpea and barley miso. South River Miso Co. produces more than 11 varieties of miso, many of which are gluten-free. They also make some specialty misos, like Dandelion Leek, which is made with wild leeks picked from the woods in spring. I wonder what kind of miso the Elwells will concoct next. How about buckwheat miso?
Miso Soup with Tofu, Eggplant, Wakame Seaweed and Scallions
4 cups of Fragrant Dashi (see recipe below)
1 Japanese eggplant, halved and sliced into ¼-inch pieces
2 teaspoons wakame seaweed, hydrated and cut into bite-size pieces
½ a block of soft tofu, cut into ½-inch squares
3½ to 4 tablespoons light, barley, azuki or brown-rice miso, plus extra as needed for flavoring
2 scallions, sliced thinly crosswise
1. Bring the dashi and eggplant to a boil in a medium saucepan, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer for 3 minutes.
2. Add the hydrated wakame seaweed and tofu and simmer for another minute.
3. While the stock is simmering, dissolve the miso paste in a few tablespoons of warm dashi. Add the mixture to the saucepan.
4. Taste and add more miso paste, dashi or water, depending on how strong the soup tastes.
5. Turn off the heat once the miso is added to the dashi. Do not boil the soup.
6. Pour the soup into individual bowls and garnish with scallions. Serve immediately.
This dashi will keep five days in the refrigerator, so you can make it ahead of time and just add miso paste and vegetables for a quick breakfast of miso soup. You can find bonito flakes and kombu seaweed at Japanese markets.
1 piece dried kombu seaweed (6 inches long)
4 cups water
3 cups dried bonito flakes (katsuo-bushi)
1. Using scissors, make several crosswise cuts in the kombu. This helps to extract the flavor during cooking.
2. Place the kombu and water in a medium saucepan and let it stand 15 minutes to overnight at room temperature.
3. Cook the kombu on medium heat. Remove it just before the water boils to avoid a fishy odor. Discard the kombu.
4. Turn heat down to a simmer. Add the bonito flakes and cook for a couple of minutes. Turn off heat and let the bonito flakes steep like tea. When the bonito flakes have settled near the bottom, strain them through a very fine mesh sieve or a sieve lined with cheesecloth or a paper towel. Don’t press the bonito flakes.
5. Use the dashi stock to make miso soup.
Top photo: Miso soup with eggplant, tofu and wakame seaweed. Credit: Sonoko Sakai