Sunday, 13 January 2013

Japanese food is even more beautiful in a calm and isolated landscape. The slower pace – deer sauntered through the wood as I ate – encourages more thoughtful and observant eating, and though I am not a fan of the sort of cooking that evokes an awed hush at the table, it was impossible not to be mesmerised by what turned up on my plate.
Busman's holiday this was not. I revelled in the fact that most of what I put in my mouth was a world away from anything I would cook at home. The firefly squid smaller than my little finger with its pool of wasabi mayonnaise; the nameko mushrooms in jellied stock, and the black soy beans that shone like glass under a crust of pure gold leaf. I should mention the cherry blossom-scented glutinous rice served with its single pink flower and salted cherry leaf and the broad-bean jelly adorned with a leaf of peppery kinome and the basket of deep-fried fiddlehead ferns and wild asparagus that I could have eaten so, so much more of.
It would be just plain rude not to acknowledge the quivering tofu with its texture of strained yogurt and the little ball of sea bream ovaries; the ice cream of red beans and the lilac shiso buds and arterial red radish sprouts that accompanied the small hand-painted dishes of sashimi. Then there was the huge orange picked from the tree in the garden, hollowed out and filled with a barely set jelly of its own juice. An orange to remind us of how exotic this fruit once was.
It is probably unwise of me to dwell too long on the source of the bowl of tiny ayu fish that were deep-fried alive in front of me and whose bitter innards were so tantalisingly moreish. But it was the little package of young mountain shoots that wowed me most of all: an unfurling frond of warabi – the wild fiddle-shaped bracken – a shoot of hillside asparagus and another of tight fuki buds served with brilliant scarlet blossoms on a bare, grey twig that finally brought a hush to the table. Probably the most hauntingly beautiful thing I have eaten for years, the very first of the season's sansai, the young, wild shoots just emerging into the chilly spring sun.

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