Over the past few weeks I have been writing about the adventures my husband and I had in Japan last month, but have yet to elaborate on the reason we were there in the first place: the Portland Tokyo Fest. We helped comprise the Portland element of the festival, along with two other local chefs (one who also runs several farms in Portland), a winemaker, a coffee roaster and a brewer.
The focus of the event was to highlight urban farming and the farm-to-table cooking that is so common in Portland. In order to do this we had two cooking demonstrations at the United Nations University Farmer’s Market in Shibuya and we also hosted a dinner party for 100 guests, where each chef served several snacks to be paired with Portland wine, beer and cocktails.
To prepare for these events, we spent our third day in Japan touring local urban farms. A bus took our group from the bustling Tokyo to the much quieter area of Narita, about an hour away, where there are many small, family run farms. Besides getting to see the properties and talk to the farmers, we were also shopping for the produce we would use at the upcoming events.
I really wasn’t sure what to expect when we got to our first stop, the Chef’s Garden Farm, but it certainly wasn’t the small, white-haired Japanese man sporting a hat with a skull on it and a massive belt buckle who greeted us. He spoke very little English but happily pulled up all kinds of vegetables for us to inspect. I can honestly say our entire group was stunned by his farm — he had the usual suspects (carrots, radishes) but also yuzu, peanuts, and wasabi. At the request a local chef, he even grows saffron.
Next we went to We Are The Farm, a much smaller property not far away. The family running this farm follows a more “natural farming” method for their crops so the only water the plants get is from rainfall. Because of that, the variety of produce wasn’t as diverse as the first farm but we still found some fun things to buy, such as freshly picked edamame.
Our last stop was another natural farm, where the farmer grows a wide variety of greens, spicy mustard greens, lettuces and a few things we couldn’t quite identify, all without the help of irrigation. After a turn around his field, his wife invited us in for tea and gave us a tour of her shop, where she weaves kimonos out of silk.
We spent the following day prepping our farm fresh vegetables and then the next two days at the UNU Farmer’s Market – which was both similar and completely different from any farmer’s market I have been to in Oregon.
There was all the glorious produce that I’m used to seeing in Portland, but also dried fish, Japanese honey mixed with yuzu — I bought two jars it was so good — and the biggest grapes I have ever seen. And even across the globe there were hints of home, like the man wearing a PDX carpet scarf (made from the same pattern as our locally infamous airport carpet) and people who wanted to make sure the wine we were selling was truly from Portland.
For his cooking demo, my husband taught market-goers how to make fresh ricotta and then how to turn the ricotta into gnocchi. He sautéed the finished cheese dumplings with the vegetables we had collected, adding in some Parmesan cheese and herbs as well.
All in all, a very educational few days! I feel really lucky that I got a chance to see some local farms — I’m sure that’s something not many tourists get a chance to do — and it was really cool to see that the farmers cater to their chef customers in the same way our small-scale farmers do here. The world is a big place but I always find it fascinating to see the similarities in different cultures, especially when it comes to all things culinary.