Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Umeya: From the office to the field

Satoshi Umezawa and my beloved beets at the UNU Farmer's Market.
Most weekends I go to a farmers market. Whether I'm in Tokyo, Madison, Hida Takayama, or Hamamatsu, I venture out in search of local food grown by local farmers. So far, I've been lucky enough to find one everywhere I go. It's been simply amazing.

But that amazingness doesn't always translate into motivation. Sometimes, like yesterday, I just want to stay home and make jam and read. However, I was on my way. No whining. At least, not out loud. I adjusted my hat and trudged up the hill from Shibuya Station to the UNU Farmers Market.

Of course, it was amazing.

On my first traverse around the market stalls I spotted beets. In Japan, beets are remarkable. I rarely see them except in my own garden or dreams that result in my pillow being covered in drool. (A little gross, but I do love those little purple earthy gems.) I stopped on my second tour, the buying leg, to talk to the vendor and buy the last Detroit Dark Red and a Chioggia.

Satoshi Umezawa was nearly as enthusiastic about those beets as I was, and that's really saying something. He readily answered questions about where they were from (Kanagawa Prefecture) and when they were planted (March). We commiserated over the challenges of growing them here in Japan (early springs and super hot summers) but extolled the virtues of their greens (delicious and healthy).

Umezawa also immediately started giving me advice on preparing them. "Roasted is best," he said, but quickly offered a simple stove-top recipe when he found I didn't have an oven. "Saute them in a little olive oil and sprinkle with salt," he said. "It's wonderful." In turn, I offered my beet caviar recipe and he sounded intrigued. "Ehhhh," he said leaning back a little as he gave the standard Japanese sound for something new and interesting. We agreed the color would be excellent. (It is.)

It turns out that Umezawa is not a grower but instead represents about 15 growers from Kanagawa. When his job ended in November of last year he turned his mind to something new. Seeing all the farmers in his prefecture growing so much good food but struggling to find an outlet, he discussed the idea of bringing their produce to the Tokyo market for them. The farmers, ranging from young to old, agreed to try it.

Umeya opened at the UNU Farmers Market shortly thereafter and he's been coming every weekend ever since. Yesterday his booth was full of lovely vegetables - bright green cucumbers in a tub of cold water, Swiss Chard's jeweled stems and fat leaves, my beloved beets, lovely lettuces, carrots, ume, zucchini, two kinds of potatoes, negi (long onions), and even a few pale blue iris. Just like traditional yaoya (vegetable sellers) he offered a nice selection of everything one might need to make dinner.

I loaded up on beets, asparagus, and zucchini before leaving. It's not unusual to find a representative selling for farmers, especially at this market, but what I really liked about Umezawa was that he really knew his stuff. He spoke like a farmer because he spends time talking with the growers, working with them in the fields, visiting their farms. The produce is local, reasonably priced, seasonal, and delicious. I wasn't tired any more.


Unknown said...

Hello^^ I just have to finally tell you how so much I enjoy your blog! Hearing about the farms and markets in Japan and all the in-between stuff, too. Thank you so much for the little peaks inside one of my favorite (and much too far away) places on earth.

Joan Lambert Bailey said...

What an absolute pleasure to meet you and learn about your farm, Natassia! I'm so glad you finally wrote to say hello. I'm now going to spend some more time perusing your website as well. I'm really looking forward to learning more about your farm!

Alyssa said...

Wow! I've been looking for beets in Tokyo since we moved here a year ago. I'll have to stop by the market this weekend. Fingers crossed that they still have some!

Joan Lambert Bailey said...

Beets are definitely hard to find here, but not impossible. A Russian friend told me he's found them at supermarkets, but I'm too lazy to go traipsing around to many of those. :)

The farmer's markets have been the best bet for me. I've found beets and swiss chard, plus some things I'm sure I've forgotten about. Good luck!