When talking about the pickles made in Tsuruoka, we cannot go without mentioning Atsumi turnips, which have nice crunchiness and a vivid purple color. It is one of the “indigenous crops” that have been carefully preserved by farmers since the Edo Period (1603-1868) in limited areas of Tsuruoka City. We interviewed Mr. Shigeru Sasaki, president of the Producers’ Association of Atsumi Turnips Made in Hitokasumi Area, who takes a main role in their efforts to produce process and establish the brand Atsumi turnips with the whole Hitokasumi community in the Atsumi area.
Traditional Yakihata Agriculture Handed down in Hitokasumi
Hitokasumi is an area in the middle of the mountains in the center of the Atsumi area, with a population of 87 in the 26 households, as of the end of March 2014. The cultivation of Atsumi turnips using the traditional technique of yakihata agriculture (literally, the agriculture of burning down the field) has more than 400 years of history.
The processing plant was established in 1984, along with the infrastructure development in the Hitokasumi area to offer opportunities for a wide range of people to try the local specialty, Atsumi turnips, and to provide a workplace within the area during winter. The region focused on agriculture and forestry, and has been required to change their ways to engage in primary industry over time. The Hitokasumi area has also faced the issues of successors and preservation techniques to conserve yakihata agriculture, and the community as a whole has been striving to find solutions to such issues, according to Mr. Sasaki.
Turnips Pickled in Sweetened Vinegar Currently Available as a Result of Trial and Error
Pickled Atsumi turnips from Hitokasumi, available also at local food fairs held at department stores, are very popular as a taste of home, and receive orders from around the country. The current pickling method, however, was established around 20 years ago, after repeated trials and errors. In Hitokasumi, Atsumi turnips are pickled only with vinegar, sugar and salt, without any preservatives. The pickling method adopted during the first decade after the plant was established was the so called “one-time pickling,” which was already practiced by local families. Although some people like the refreshing taste produced by pickling one time, fermentation progresses faster and generates gases with this method, causing problems in shipping and preservation. Thus, the current unique method of pickling twice, resulting in a richer taste, was developed to solve such problems.
Incidentally, the pickling method using sweetened vinegar has a shorter history compared to other methods of pickling Atsumi turnips. Traditionally, the common pickling method was “Aba-zuke,” with which turnips are pickled in miso (bean paste) and salt along with persimmon fruit and leaves. “Aba” originally means “mother” in a dialect spoken in the Shonai region and colloquially refers to a female peddler. Aba-zuke has a brownish color with complicated tastes that reminds us of the typical home-made cooking of the countryside.
Reportedly, this pickle is not produced anywhere at this moment, but in 2015, the “Female Citizen Reporters for Promotion of Tsuruoka’s Gastronomy” called up by the City of Tsuruoka, launched a project to re-excavate the Aba-zuke culture gradually disappearing from the local culture. (For the project, Fujisawa turnips were used instead of Atsumi turnips.)
Mr. Sasaki took us for a tour in the processing facility to show us the pickling processes.
In the processing plant, there are many large barrels, each of which can hold turnips for 65 containers, weighing as much as 1,300 kg. On top, a 2,000 kg weight is placed and the turnips are pickled with salt by turning them upside down once. This is the first pickling process. For the second process, turnips are well pickled in the liquid made from salt, sugar and vinegar, and then, they are finally vacuum-sealed for distribution.
In the past, the producers’ association tried to find an effective use of turnip leaves, because they were not used at all and the processing plant was in use only during the winter. For instance, they tried to make a dried powder from turnip leaves to be used for cooking. They even tried to make pickled cucumbers for the summer season, but it was rather costly and the cucumber flavor transferred to the pickled turnips. Thus, the association currently provides only pickled turnips for distribution.
“In the past, a client of ours who purchased our pickled Atsumi turnips asked if we had products other than pickled turnips. We would like to meet their expectations but pickled turnips are quite sensitive,” says Mr. Sasaki, whose passion for turnips was felt as we interviewed him.
Atsumi turnips used for pickles in Hitokasumi are exclusively produced by carefully selected farmers in the Atsumi area.
“This is a good one. When cultivated on the slope, it does not develop unnecessary roots but has a single major bunch of roots running from the center, which can be used for our products. Other turnips with fine roots from the side are not used. This is how you identify good turnips for our products.”
His Thorough Understanding of Turnips Based on His Long Experience
They start yakihata (burned-down fields) at the end of July. The operation comprises of cutting down and taking out the cedar trees from the mountain slope to be converted into the farm field, drying the branches, and setting fire to the field by mid-August. The cedar branches must be dry enough before setting fire on them, so they aim for the season with little rain. Then, they plant the seeds of Atsumi turnips right after burning off the field, when the field is still hot. They aim to plant the seeds before the soil of ashes is depressed in the ground due to the morning dew or rain, and then there is a slight rainfall.
The ashes thus work as dirt pressing the seeds in the soil. Within one month, they thin out the young seedlings. Although the frequency of thinning out may differ from producer to producer, Mr. Sasaki does this work only once because he does not want to step in the field many times. In order to restrict the number of times one steps into the field, advanced skills are required to plant seeds with appropriate intervals in the soil.
Once every five years is the ideal cycle to produce a fertile soil on the slope with weeds to be converted into a yakihata field. In the past, the cycle consisted of 1) cutting down the cedar forest, 2) cultivating turnips first and then radish, buckwheat and cereals, and 3) planting cedar trees again. More recently, however, they are more focused on turnip production. We asked Mr. Sasaki if there was any difference between turnips made in the yakihata field of the forest and the ones made in the normal grassland. His answer was affirmative. “It is different, indeed. Turnips grown in the yakihata field of the cedar forest have longer roots due to the nutritious soil; and a white color is mixed with the original color, thus its less vivid color.
Their Future Outlook
The harvest season for Atsumi turnips runs from early October until it snows in December. The processing plants, usually run by six to seven people, become busy at that time. One of the staff members says that it is fun to work although they are very busy handling both turnip pickling and incoming orders at the same time. She is originally from the Hitokasumi area.
She once moved out of the area but returned afterwards, which served her as an opportunity to work at the plant. The interview was carried out during the off-peak season, but it was impressive to see her working hard taking phone calls and vacuum packing all on her own.
“Not many young people newly join this business, but we would like to try handling a variety of products, including locally unique edible mountain herbs, not just turnips.”
According to Mr. Sasaki, his community also has the same concern for the lack of successors as other communities in the agriculture, forestry and fishery industries. However, he hints at a positive prospect by focusing on the use of edible wild plants, the blessings of mountains. The Hitokasumi area is a small community in the middle of the mountains with only 26 households. Every single word of Mr. Sasaki hinted at his love and gentle attitude toward the Hitokasumi area, as well as the moderate and tender transitions toward a community backed by the family-like ties characteristic to the area.
“How about coming to see our field in May? Beautiful turnip flowers should bloom everywhere in the field at that time,” said Mr. Sasaki.
We will definitely come back again with friends to see them.