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Country Gentleman: The woods burst to life with tasty butterburs

Anemone raddeana flowers, the "spring fairies" of the Afan Woodland, are seen in this photo provided by the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust.

Spring on our doorstep, rings of bare ground around the trunks of trees, snow melting rapidly and the Torii River rushing whitely a stone throw from my study window. The mountains still gleam silver, especially the jagged peaks of Togakushi. There's still lots of snow up there. We've had a warm spell, warm enough to take off jackets outside, but then some really cold nights.

    In the patches of exposed ground below oak trees wild boar have been digging around, turning over all the old dead leaves from last autumn. They are snuffling about for last year's acorns. When acorns are exposed to freezing cold their starch starts to turn to sugar, which makes them even more tasty for the wild boar. I've seen a big bear doing the same thing one spring in Hokkaido, brushing away dead leaves with his huge paws, munching away on acorns.

    We especially look forward to gathering our first butterburs, "fuki no to" in Japanese. The yellowish green buds push up through boggy or wet ground very soon after the snow goes. They contain a little ball of tiny yellow flowers, protected by a sheath of sepals. Flowers grow before the long stem, which is also edible, and the big green leaves. Here in Nagano the butterbur leaves (also called coltsfoot in English, because of their shape) are about as big as a dinner plate, but in Hokkaido they can be huge, big enough in summer to use as an umbrella.)

    In the spring of 1981, my first spent here, I ate so many butterbur tempura I got quite ill, burping like a camel and unable to look at a butterbur for about a month. Now, I'll eat just a few as tempura. Their special bitter taste tells me that spring is truly about to come rushing in. There are many recipes for using butterburs, but perhaps my favourite is with miso. We gather some butterburs, preferable before they fully open, and take them home to chop up and fry with sesame oil. The oil reduces the bitterness and cooking them quickly stops them from going black. We then take the cooked butterbur off the heat and carefully mix in miso, sake and mirin, Every home seems to have their own recipe. Some people mix in sugar or honey, and one lady that I know mixes in some dried bonito flakes and a dab of butter. Then you put the mix back into the pan and heat slowly for a few minutes. Bottle in small jars, because I don't think anybody would want to eat a lot of the stuff at one sitting. A little dab here and there is absolutely delicious with sake or freshly cooked white rice. Store in the fridge and enjoy for weeks.

    I also intend to try another friend's recipe, which is to mix chopped butterburs into an Okinawan-style champuru stir-fry, instead of the bitter "goya."

    I had never eaten butterburs before I came to Japan, although the species are common in Europe and North America. Nobody eats them in Britain, perhaps because the species is different? (There are at least 17 of this Petasites species, our Japanese one being Petasites japonicus)

    Apparently the name came from a Greek word, "petases" which means "a felt shepherd's hat." When I discovered this I gave a nod; here, in the summer, we make cool green hats out of big coltsfoot or "fuki" leaves and stems.

    Although I don't think that in the west they are eaten as food, butterburs have been used as medicine for thousands of years; for fevers, migraine and all kinds of maladies. In Europe and America you can buy butterbur supplements in bottles, though there are also warnings of adverse side effects in some cases.

    I wondered at the name "butterbur" and thought it might come from the colour of the flowers. In fact it comes from the old practice of wrapping butter in the fresh green leaves during warm summer days.

    Coltsfoot, especially a hybrid variegated type, have become popular in landscaping and are sold in gardening shops.

    We have so many in our woods I sometimes think of setting up a "fuki miso and sake" shop! ("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol)

    Click here to read the Japanese version of this article.

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