Buckwheat noodles, or soba, are a Japanese specialty, especially when made with freshly harvested grain. When the Tasmanian buckwheat harvest starts, Sydney-based noodle master Yoshi Shibazaki puts on a special soba night – making countless skeins of fresh noodles ready to be slurped in nourishing Japanese-style soups.
There’s an extraordinary plant growing in the gentle rolling hills of Tasmania’s north. It’s buckwheat, prized in many countries for its health-giving properties and its delicious taste. Actually a legume, it’s high in calcium and protein and it’s even got an unusual shape – somewhere between a triangle and a diamond.
Buckwheat is not a cereal, but a broadleaf leguminous plant. The flowers are white and it grows to a height of 1-1.2 metres. The crop is harvested a bit like cereal, with a header and often the cut plant is left on the ground to dry out before the seeds are gathered. It’s taken to a silo for cleaning and sometimes it needs to dry out more before being hulled and packed into bags ready for export.
In Australia, trial plots of buckwheat were planted in l988 by the Department of Primary Industries and now about 200 tonnes are harvested in Tasmania each year.
Buckwheat is planted in December, flowers in February and is harvested in March/early April. Contract growers in the north and north west of Tasmania (near Ulverstone) supply the market, much of it going to a Japanese company – Shiratori - which supplies fresh soba noodles on a daily basis to restaurants throughout Japan. Shiratori has strict guidelines about quality that have been developed with their clientele and, for this, along with the fact that Tasmania produces a superior quality of buckwheat due to soil and weather conditions, Tasmania receives almost double the amount paid to suppliers from other Australian states. True devotees of this wonderful grain believe the Tasmanian variety is the best in the world because of the constant temperature, dry climate and the rich soils it’s grown in.
Japanese buckwheat noodles are made with fresh buckwheat in season. These noodles are known as soba and are thought of very highly, particularly due to their health properties. Noodle master Yoshi Shibazaki says they guard against high blood pressure, heart attacks, hardening of the arteries, anaemia, rectal cancer and diabetes.
In season, Shibazaki-san receives fresh supplies of de-hulled buckwheat every six weeks. Provided the ground buckwheat lives up to his quality standards (good colour, sweetness and moisture), he will notify his regulars and organise a dinner featuring a number of soba dishes. At his Woolloomooloo restaurant, he has a stone mill imported from Japan where he grinds the fresh buckwheat twice a day. Freshly harvested, it has a gentle green colour. Later, it will become more brownish. Chef Shibazaki says there is nothing so fragrant or beautiful to work with as the new season grain, and stone-grinding it twice a day makes the soba fresh and sweet tasting. Only a handful of restaurants throughout the world go to this much trouble, he says.
The flour is mixed with filtered water to create a dough… which is then worked and kneaded to give the soba strength, elasticity and texture. Watching Yoshi Shibazaki work is seeing a master craftsman in action – it took a staggering 10 years to perfect his craft - four years learning how to mix the dough, another four to perfect rolling it out evenly, and two to master cutting it by hand.
The soba are served with soy and mirin, or in soup. They can also be served cold.