Ed­i­ble flow­ers add colour to culi­nary art

Viet Nam News - - FOOD - By Megumi Iizuka

Ka­tokaen, a flower farm in the suburbs of Tokyo, has built a thriv­ing busi­ness by pro­duc­ing blooms that are not only pretty to look but are en­rich­ing the culi­nary arts with col­or­ful pe­tals as crisp as let­tuce or as sweet and sour as berries.

Run by a cou­ple and their daugh­ter, the farm in Ise­hara, Kana­gawa Pre­fec­ture, pro­duces around 40 kinds of flow­ers in late au­tumn and early win­ter, in­clud­ing cy­cla­mens, pan­sies and snap­drag­ons, all ed­i­ble and mostly free of in­tro­duced chem­i­cals.

The pho­to­genic flow­ers find their way into high-end ho­tel restau­rants and en­thu­si­asts' homes where cooks have de­vised myr­iad unique recipes that have boosted the farm's vis­i­bil­ity on In­sta­gram and other so­cial me­dia sites.

The in­tro­duc­tion of the ed­i­ble flow­ers at the farm stemmed from the ex­pe­ri­ence of the hus­band Shige­haru Kato, 59, who spent 13 months in the Nether­lands from 1980 to 1981 where he un­der­took agri­cul­tural train­ing.

While learn­ing or­na­men­tal flower farming in the Western Europe na­tion fa­mous for pro­duc­ing tulips, he had an op­por­tu­nity to eat an ed­i­ble flower. "It was about 38 years ago, so I do not re­call where and how I ate it, but I clearly re­mem­ber that it came as a to­tal sur­prise to me and the tex­ture was so crispy. I was so in­trigued."

For the first 10 years after his re­turn to Ja­pan, Kato mainly pro­duced or­na­men­tal cy­cla­mens but shifted to ed­i­ble flower farming after his wife, Kyoko, 58, made jelly from pes­ti­cide-free flow­ers.

When she of­fered it to the at­ten­dees of a group plant­ing class, the stu­dents were im­pressed and in­ter­ested to know more.

"They were really amazed at the jelly and it spread so quickly by word of mouth," said Kyoko, adding that the fam­ily started re­ceiv­ing orders from a restau­rant and even­tu­ally from ho­tels and in­di­vid­ual cus­tomers.

They rarely ad­ver­tise their prod­ucts, but the num­ber of clients and sales con­tin­ued to grow while con­ven­tional flower farms in the area strug­gled to sur­vive, with some clos­ing due to fierce price com­pe­ti­tion and fuel costs.

The cou­ple said the trans­for­ma­tion from or­na­men­tal to ed­i­ble flower pro­duc­tion came so nat­u­rally be­cause they rarely used pes­ti­cides from the be­gin­ning.

They grow flow­ers with or­ganic fer­til­iz­ers and put as lit­tle stress as pos­si­ble on the plants by care­fully ad­just­ing the tem­per­a­ture and level of ven­ti­la­tion in the green­house.

The farm's flow­ers are used in cook­ies, gelato and cakes at restau­rants but are also planted at fa­cil­i­ties for the dis­abled be­cause they are safe even if eaten ac­ci­den­tally. Cus­tomers can also pur­chase pot­ted flow­ers so they can en­joy them as or­na­men­tal plants and pick pe­tals when re­quired for cook­ing.

Some flow­ers are toxic, but those that are safe for con­sump­tion of­fer a va­ri­ety of flavours rang­ing from slight bit­ter­ness or sour­ness, while oth­ers can have a taste like the nose-bend­ing Ja­panese condi­ment wasabi.

Olive Tree, an Ital­ian restau­rant in Ise­hara, uses ed­i­ble flow­ers in its sal­ads and cakes. The restau­ran­teur Kazuyoshi Yoneyama said flow­ers are use­ful in a num­ber of dishes be­cause their flavours are of­ten sub­tle and do not dom­i­nate other in­gre­di­ents.

"Colour­ful pe­tals are so eye-catch­ing and menu items us­ing flow­ers prove very pop­u­lar. Flow­ers are low in calo­ries but rich in nu­tri­ents," he said.

The Kato fam­ily busi­ness is now sup­ported by Ran Tana­hashi, 34, their el­dest daugh­ter, who, like her fa­ther, trained in farming meth­ods in the Nether­lands. Around 2005, she spent about a year in the Low­lands learn­ing from the world's lead­ing flower pro­duc­ing coun­try.

Tana­hashi has al­ways wanted to work in the agri­cul­tural in­dus­try and she said her ex­pe­ri­ence in the Nether­lands has in­spired her to fur­ther pur­sue her ca­reer in the field while re­viv­ing her lo­cal com­mu­nity.

"I saw many peo­ple send­ing flow­ers as a gift much more ca­su­ally at par­ties and other oc­ca­sions to ex­press their grat­i­tude. Ed­i­ble flow­ers were also closely linked to peo­ple's lives," with many homes in the Nether­lands hav­ing herbal or ed­i­ble flo­ral gar­dens just out­side kitchens. Of­ten, flow­ers can be found as dec­o­ra­tion in ev­ery room of a per­son's home, said Tana­hashi.

"I want to bring flow­ers closer to peo­ple here in Ja­pan too," she said, adding she hopes to make use of her ex­per­tise in flo­ral ar­range­ment and dec­o­ra­tion gained be­fore join­ing the fam­ily busi­ness about three years ago.

To en­sure there is no need for pes­ti­cides, the fam­ily mixes char­coal, the wood chips of the neem tree and Chi­nese herbs into the soil to keep bugs away. They also try not to be "over­pro­tec­tive", mean­ing they do not read­ily wa­ter the flow­ers so the plants ex­tend their roots deeper and grow stronger.

But it is eas­ier said than done and Kato ad­mits there were times when he just had to aban­don some flower types in or­der to keep the method as "friendly" as pos­si­ble, and to grow safe prod­ucts.

De­spite the tend­ing and pro­duc­tion of ed­i­ble flow­ers re­quir­ing so much care, the fam­ily finds it fas­ci­nat­ing, they say.

"When you eat some­thing de­li­cious or lis­ten to a cool song you are moved. Same ap­plies to flow­ers. If you see a dish us­ing pretty flow­ers you say 'Wow it's so pretty.' This kind of thrilling or elec­tri­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence rein­vig­o­rates. This is what makes me keep farming flow­ers," said Kyoko. KYODO

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