Koji and natto making in Wales

We had been lured to a remote valley in mid-Wales in search of the secret to Japanese cuisine:  koji. Arriving on a sunny Saturday afternoon in April, it felt as though we had stepped out of the Welsh countryside and into Edo period Japan. Reiko, our host, is a really remarkable woman as well as being a highly talented chef.

Cwm Mawr

Our reasons for seeking out Reiko stemmed from our growing understanding of and appreciation for koji. We wanted to learn more about this miracle foodstuff from someone steeped in Japanese culture and culinary tradition. Reiko was a very welcoming host, and straight away we felt very comfortable sharing food and stories in her spacious and gracefully decorated barn conversion. Despite the fact that she is approaching the age of 70, Reiko could easily pass for a woman at least 20 years younger. This seems to be at least partly due to her upbringing in the countryside of post-war Japan, where junk food was non-existent and sugar, meat and even fish were very rare indeed.

Reiko and Georgina

Reiko explained over some of her extraordinary dishes how she had begun to learn to cook at the age of ten. This was macrobiotics without the classes, books or teachers which came along in later years. It’s an authentic, artisanal form of macrobiotics and we were learning at the feet of a master.

That evening we helped her start a batch of koji made from organic short grain rice. The process takes about three days, (including pre-soaking the rice) so the plan was that the koji would be ready just before our return to the Peak District on Monday afternoon. We also began work on a large batch of organic natto for one of her customers.

Koya tofu

Reiko has spent many years perfecting her recipes and methods for the koji, miso, natto, tamari and amazake she makes herself, and it was difficult to keep up with her as she buzzed around her comfortable kitchen.  Like an artist in the kitchen,  she wasn’t one to carefully measure out ingredients or amounts, but she took the time with us to try and come up with approximate measurements. Fermentation is a type of cooking better suited to the artist than the scientist, as outcomes depend so much on a symphony of time, temperature, environment and ingredients.

The wonderful Reiko with her wonderful koji
Fresh koji
Natto preparation
Fresh natto!

But fermentation is more about waiting than it is about rushing around the kitchen, so once the koji and natto were bedded down for the night, we were able to learn more about the central part that fermentation (especially in the form of products based on koji) plays in traditional Japanese food. Koji (which can be either made with rice or barley) is a key ingredient in many important foods, most notably miso, amazake and tamari. It seems that there is hardly a single Japanese foodstuff that does not involve at least some basic type of fermentation, whether it be natto, miso, tofu, pickles or soy sauce. It feels as though the health benefits (not to mention the taste benefits!) of fermented foods are now only beginning to be better understood here in Western countries, even though many, if not most, traditional food cultures have long treasured and understood their life-giving benefits.

Our first batch of home made miso, day 1

Perhaps our modern aversion to ‘germs’ has a lot to do with this shyness for fermented foods in the Western diet. Or perhaps it’s simply down to the fact that fermented foods are rebellious and don’t take kindly to mass production and homogenization. In any case, there is something of a rebellion taking place, and Cwm Mawr is at the heart of it.

Serving lunch

On Sunday the more traditional Welsh rain had returned, so we cancelled our plans for a short hike in the surrounding hills to focus more closely on the making of other macrobiotic mainstays, namely miso and barley and rice amazake. Reiko guided us in our endeavours as we made a start on a large batch of organic miso and began fermenting the amazake with some koji we had prepared earlier. By now the natto was ready, so we were also able to watch Reiko whiz together a very tasty natto condiment which was a great accompaniment to the afternoon’s late lunch.

Natto condiment

We rose fairly early on Monday for the final day of our trip. By now the koji would be ready, allowing us to finalise our first batch of miso. The koji smelled quite extraordinary, a smell that is too elusive for words. An unusual but also pleasant smell, quite unlike the dried koji we were more familiar with.

Miso soup with mochi and noodles

And so later that day we set off north, the car packed with an array of exciting foods awaiting further fermentation and experimentation. We were both buzzing from this brief but deeply interesting culinary journey. Check back in four months when the miso will be approaching maturity! And we will soon be returning to Cwm Mawr to learn even more in our next lesson.

Yurt life with the Macrobiotic Shop

A few years ago we made the mutual decision to move away from the city. It was something that had been slowly growing inside each of us. An uncomfortable feeling that the culture around us no longer provided nourishment – that our way of living was too far removed from the things that stirred us. These feelings were somewhat satiated by a move to rural Sussex. We were able to regularly see the night sky and know the cycles of the moon without checking the newspaper. We found edible wild foods on our doorstep. Yet, even so, it wasn’t a place that felt entirely right, still very close to the city and a countryside mostly devoted to the homes of the wealthy.

A year later, and a move to the Peak District, scrunched between Manchester and Sheffield, we found a new home in an area of real beauty and even glimpses of wildness: rocky cliffs, flowing rivers, big hills and simmering skies. The move north felt good. Even so, we felt ourselves drawn further north, beyond the borders of England and into Scotland. This year, to mark a special anniversary, we felt it was the right moment to briefly try out a way of life that really appealed to us. And so, a short stay at Black Isle Yurts was booked for late August. Located about 15 miles from Inverness, the yurts were hand built by the Adam family, with most of the design and build carried out by Jenny and her brother Kenneth.

Simple and effectiveWillow Yurt

We had both been anticipating the trip and the stay in a yurt, but I don’t think anything could have fully prepared us for just how special and nourishing our time there would be. Our yurt was situated about 200 metres down a wooded path, with really beautiful chanterelles there to greet us. The interior of the yurt was very simply but beautifully furnished, with a wood stove, a small table, a basic cooking area and a comfortable wooden bed. It was going to be a really peaceful and secluded several days, with  no electricity, no running water and no access by car.

The walk to Willow Yurt
Forest path
A real abundance of mushroomsChanterelles
What we hadn’t fully anticipated was the feelings and emotions which were generated by living in a round dwelling, even if only for a short time. Around the world, and for tens of thousands of years our ancestors always chose to live in circular structures. Yurts, tipis, Celtic roundhouses, African huts and wigwams are all round. As the great Lakota holy man, Black Elk, noted

“…the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.  The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars.  The wind, in its greatest power, whirls.  Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours.  Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were.  The life of a man is a circle, from childhood to childhood…”

I feel that unless you have experienced this first hand, the words can sound idealistic at best, and mystic mumbo-jumbo at worst. But I live and work in a world of boxes and straight lines:  house, car, work, train, shop, pub. My whole environment seems to consist of nothing but straight lines.  Spending time in a circle felt very natural but also very special, even more so with the natural light pouring in from the domed ceiling. Unlike a traditional Mongolian ger (yurt being the Russian work for the Mongolian one), the fire in Willow Yurt was set to one side, next to the door. A more efficient use of space no doubt, but perhaps lacking the central role of the hearth or firepit which is the focal point of so many traditional ways of life.
The beautiful roof structure
Domed roof in the morning

A jungle-like canopy of ferns outsideLattice work walls, ferns outside our window
Preparing a few mushrooms

A yurt-dweller preparing his dinner

Indeed, so blissfully meditative was the time spent there that is was difficult to motivate ourselves to explore much further, even though the Black Isle is full of interesting places to visit. We both felt ourselves slow down in both our movement and thinking. I have personally chosen to live a little more simply than many people. I have never had a smartphone, and I have been living without TV or radio for many years. I drive only occasionally and listen to music only from time-to-time. Yet, even so, I have noticed my ability to concentrate has withered over time. In that circular space, without electricity, my powers of concentration were re-invigorated. This was most noticeable in the better reading ability I had, but overall I just felt much more focussed and able to think clearly.

In stark contrast to the Peak District, the Black Isle had a real abundance of wild food, especially mushrooms, which we gathered in good number to cook some really wonderful food on a two-ring camping stove. I was able to identify at least a dozen different species of mushroom within three or four miles of the yurt, including some really excellent ones such as chanterelles, shaggy parasols, boletes and one really exquisite porcini.
Chanterelles again!
Preparing wild mushrooms for dinner

Kuksa with a wee dramThe foragers return to a wee dram
A special Porcini

As well as spending time in our circle and eating amazingly well, we also managed some short trips away, including a long walk along the deserted coastline which lies just below the cliffs which bordered our yurt. Looking towards Inverness we could see the city just a few miles away, along with the airport traffic. Even though this area is relatively unspoilt, this is something that cannot be taken for granted. Locals spoke to us of their worries about plans to allow large transfers of crude oil just a few miles offshore in the Inner Moray Firth near a large dolphin habitat. Cromarty Rising, an environmental group opposing government plans to devastate the local area by bringing large oil tankers into the area, has a lot of support but their struggle is a reminder of just how vigilant and fiercely protective we must be in order to safeguard the habitat we share.
Beach flower
The Black Isle coast
Sea, sky and rocks
Looking towards Inverness

Leaving the Black Isle was something of a struggle, having so thoroughly enjoyed and deeply appreciated our time there. Since then we have been looking into the notion of living more simply in a round space with much more seriousness. Whatever happens, the warmth, inner peace and quiet we enjoyed will stay with us.


A day in the mountains – the Vegan Welsh 3000s ultra race

Photos by Scott Seefeldt

Last Friday the Macrobiotic Shop closed early for the day and headed over to Snowdonia in North Wales to take part in the sixth edition of the V3K Ultra, a very tough and quite unique mountain running race which takes in all of the Welsh 3000s in the course of about 35 miles. The race is also known as Vegan Welsh 3000s, and is organised by Kirsch Bowker and a team of fantastic volunteers. The Welsh 3000s is a classic one-day mountain trek, taking in Snowdon, Crib Goch, Tryfan and 12 other 3,000 foot peaks.

According to the race manual, These races are only suitable for experienced fell runners over our toughest mountain terrain, certainly NOT for the faint hearted!“. Nevertheless this year the race attracted 200 runners for the full (ultra) distance and 30 for the half distance. Aside from the normal rules to be adhered to in such events, the V3K also requires all competitors to consume a vegan diet for the day. The race has grown rapidly from starting with only three entrants in 2011 to having to set a limit of 200 this year.

In fact there has been a big increase in the number of runners and other athletes choosing a vegan diet not only for ethical reasons but for health ones as well.  The most famous of these is the legendary Scott Juerk who wrote the highly recommended book Eat and Run, part autobiography, part guidebook for those wishing to improve their health and athletic performance through  diet. Jurek’s dietary approach borrows a lot from macrobiotics, with a big emphasis on whole grains. Here in the UK the Vegan Runners club is a great place to meet other athletes following a plant-based diet. It’s a club we are  very happy to be members of.

Anyway, we were naturally both pretty nervous in the days leading up to the start, as we had been somewhat lacking in our preparation. But when we arrived Friday afternoon at Hendre Hall we immediately felt really welcome. The organisers do a very good job of providing excellent food on Friday evening and all day during the race on Saturday. Hendre Hall is a really good venue for such an event, a very spacious farm with a sheltered courtyard adjoined by a small campsite. While many of the runners are not normally vegan, we didn’t hear anyone complaining about the food. The pre-race meal of curry or pasta was followed by the race briefing, then it was off to bed to try and get some sleep before catching the bus to the race start at 4am for the ultra race. Georgina, who was running the half, had the luxury of a later start, and was able to have a little bit of a lie in.

Straight away the race climbs fairly steeply to the summit of Snowdon before heading over the infamous Crib Goch and then descending to Checkpoint 1. The rain which had been forecast did not materialise, but the morning was damp and foggy, not ideal for scrambling up and down steep cliffs and jagged rocks. But the atmosphere was great, lots of like-minded people off for an adventure over some seriously daunting terrain.

Crib Goch

Crib Goch is a knife-edge arête with very steep and deep drops on either side. One misstep would mean disaster. Although I consider myself a reasonable runner, I don’t really like heights and I am not exactly nimble when it comes such terrain. As a result, progress to Checkpoint 1 was slow, as I carefully picked my way over these perilous mountains.

The author somewhere on Crib Goch

The rest of the day went on in a similar way – frightening rock spires suddenly appearing out of the fog, steep drops, beautiful mountain lakes and waterfalls appearing briefly when the clouds lifted. I met so many other wonderful ultra runners and had the chance to briefly bond with a few. The two checkpoints were well stocked with all kinds of vegan food, most of it freshly prepared and quite good. The vegetable soup at Ogwen was the most memorable, as were the roasted potatoes to be grabbed and eaten on the run. I also took along a little food of my own, most importantly tempeh, avocado and home made kimchi wraps.

A runner high above Glaslyn, or Blue Lake

The second and third sections of the race were equally difficult in their own way. The Glyders were full of steep ups and down, with some difficult rocky climbs, especially the final climb of Tryfan and the very steep descent to Ogwen. The final section, the Carneddau, was very high, cold and exposed, with strong winds and swirling fog which meant that the last 15 miles to the finish were tough indeed.

Wet and foggy conditions led to tricky footing

Eventually I made it back to the finish at Hendre Hall, completing the race in a little over 12 hours. By the end my whole body felt shattered. My legs and arms were scratched in many places, my thighs could barely support me and even my biceps and forearms were aching from having to pull myself up and over high rocks and then lower myself down the other side. I even discovered a gaping hole in the back of my shorts where no doubt the fabric had shredded on one of the scree slopes I had slid down on my backside.

Despite having competed in and finished such ultra events as the 268 mile Spine Race, nothing had prepared me for such an arduous day.

Steep and rocky descents left runners with shattered legs

But my big goal for the day had been to catch Georgina before the finish. In the lead up to the race I had done some rough estimates and worked out that I had a good chance of catching Georgina on the run in to the finish. When, after over 10 hours on the run, I reached the summit of the final peak, Foel Fras, I asked the marshal if #326 (Georgina) had checked in. When I was informed she hadn’t, I naturally grew concerned. Had the marshal just missed her in the fog or had something else happened? I knew that even if she had run a very slow pace she would have reached Foel Fras easily by now. Was she perhaps lost or injured?

The finisher’s t-shirt

After collecting my finisher’s prizes I staggered back to our weather-beaten camper van. hoping to find Georgina there in one piece. I gave the door a shove and found her fast asleep inside, equally exhausted after many adventures, which included getting lost in the fog and falling into several bogs.

Georgina’s race report to follow…

My vegan life: article in Vegan Food and Living magazine

Below is a copy of my article which appeared in the May edition of Vegan Food and Living magazine

My vegan life

It’s mid-January In Dufton, Cumbria, and I’m woken up by my alarm at 5am. I am sleeping in the back of our converted camper van, and today’s itinerary will include climbing Cross Fell in the half light of the morning, and hopefully reaching Hadrian’s Wall around midnight. I am about halfway through the Spine Race, a non-stop 268 mile footrace along the Pennine Way from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland. It’s called “Britain’s Most Brutal Race”, and it attracts experienced ultra runners from around the world. I am one of 120 competitors hoping just to survive running up to 60 miles per day through rain, mud, bog, hills and fog. Most runners get by 2-3 hours of sleep per night.

The question I get asked most often is why I would want to put myself through something like this. I have come to the realisation that if you ask the question you probably wouldn’t understand the answer anyway. So I don’t really try to explain things any more, instead I just focus on making the most the the experiences I have in these events.

I have been competing in long distance running and cycling events for close to 20 years now, including 11 marathons, road cycling at elite level for several years, taking a 3rd place in the national 24 hour time trial championships, completing the 2,200 mile Transcontinental Cycle Race from London to Istanbul twice, as well as finishing a number of ultra marathons and mountain races. But up until a couple of years ago I’d always followed a so-called ‘healthy diet’, i.e. some meat (mostly chicken or lean red meat), dairy products, eggs, cheese and lots of carbohydrates, the type of diet endurance athletes have been used to following for decades.

While I had always had the strength and determination to compete at a reasonable level, I’d sometimes found recovery difficult, especially with running. In the past I had been lucky to be able to run more than 20 or so miles without suffering for days afterwards, and I was prone to injury. Then in 2014 I was really fortunate to meet my partner Georgina while I was preparing for my first attempt at the Transcontinental Race. Georgina is a trained macrobiotic chef and food expert and she eventually convinced my to change my diet to a macrobiotic vegan one for increased endurance and better recovery. I admit I was fairly sceptical for some time, but as I gradually transitioned to a plant-based, wholefoods diet I found a number of remarkable things started to happen. Firstly, I was able to run up to 80 miles per week in training for weeks on end without any muscle soreness or injury. Also I was sleeping much better, my sinus issues cleared up and my mood swings went away. And so my horizons of what I thought were possible began to expand.

In February, 2016 I put my name down for the Spine Race, which is one of the toughest running races in the world, with only about 50% of entrants making it to the finish. Georgina was just as enthusiastic about driving along to support me in the van as I was in running the distance. Mentally I was prepared for the prospect of not making it to the end, as I knew fully well that at age 49 I was towards the upper end of the age spectrum, and that even if my mind was strong my body might just give up at some point. But Georgina’s steady stream of delicious meals, including miso soup, tempeh, sweet potato chips, aduki bean burgers, quinoa porridge, raw kimchi, brown rice and nut butters to take along the trail allowed me to finish strong. I was back in training a week later.


The original article can be seen below (click to enlarge).