Wallabi's Farm: The English Hototogisu Bakery and Farm Blog

Hello, my name is Sara. In 2005 my husband and I bought an old farmhouse in Okayama, borrowed a few fields and set to building ourselves a pleasant rural life. Now, several years on, we have fields a-plenty, what was until the end of 2012 a wheaty bread bakery and is now prepping to be a gluten-free space, and have incorporated our efforts into the Hototogisu Bakery and Farm. Welcome!

Monday, March 04, 2013

米粉! Or, just sharing more about our move to go gluten free than ever you wanted to know

Sorry for the gratuitous use of Japanese in the post title there - it reads "komeko" or rice flour, and is there because I have exciting news to share: today we sent off 60 kilograms of our homegrown rice to be milled in a very high-tech machine into superfine rice flour, one of the best inventions ever (an invention considerably better than sliced bread to one in my position!). Also fantastic in this project is the fact that the mill is local, and the head of the milling company knows us - he used to come buy bread. Because of that he drove out to the farm to deliver samples and talk about milling in person, and he and Shuzo seem to have gotten along fabulously. Okayama is a nice, connected place and I love to see our network expanding.

I gather rice flour has a pretty bad reputation in the gluten-free baking world, and indeed, the rice I have milled in my countertop mill has retained a bit of sandiness. However! This fancy new milling machine, recently perfected, if I understand a'right, makes a very different sort of flour - one that gives me yummy soft-on-the-inside-crisp-on-the-outside biscuits and (savory) scones and deep, abiding happiness in the shape of a grilled cheese sandwich. 

When I first went gluten-free, I gave up completely on baked goods. Everything I read warned of bread the consistency of cardboard, brownies with bean flour in them and the need to use intimidating ingredients like xanthum gum if one hoped to bake anything both gluten-free and edible. Since I was going gluten-free after several years of baking wheat bread for a living, I decided disappointment was inevitable and didn't even try baking bread until my mother, also gluten-free, visited from the States and brought a suitcase full of exotic ingredients and mixes. The pancakes were a success, but the bread was the predicted failure, a gummy, gritty white mass flavored too strongly with cinnamon sugar. In the years that followed I managed a few successes - I can make crepes and, if I can guiltlessly manage the amount of sugar required, brown sugar donuts. My cornbread was a stellar success for about half an hour, after which point I sank into a stupor and slowly assembled the conclusion that the cornbread was contaminated with gluten (it was: the lovely organic cornmeal was processed on equipment shared with wheat).

With all of these failures, and the continued demand for the wheaty bread from our bakery, I never dreamed we could make the bakery gluten-free. Although the government agricultural bureau is pushing rice flour and "米粉パン" is everywhere, most of the products made with it are really just wheat products with rice flour added (pick up a loaf of "sourdough rice bread" sometime and check the ingredients to see if they don't begin "wheat, rice, yeast, sourdough" with sugar making a prominent appearance as well), and, to judge by appearance (all I have to go on, you see - I can't eat them), they are not very good. So, though I was still getting sick from the flour in the air (or on my husband or daughter), we tried a myriad of ways to make the wheaty bakery work - I wore gloves, I wore a mask, I never, ever, ever ate or drank anything prepared in the bakery, we hired sales help and called the cleaning man - until one day (sometime around the last time I got glutened, when I had an attack of vertigo in the middle of preparing for one of the busiest weeks of the year) Shuzo decided he couldn't continue being the reason I was getting sick and began making plans to quit.

When we started the bakery 5 years ago, I was the main baker, and when I went gluten-free I had so much emotionally invested in the bakery - it's success as a business and it's goal to feed people really well - that I had no desire to close the bakery. I was sad I had to leave my job but getting well so rapidly that (really, truly) anything seemed possible, and I was new enough to the gluten-free world to think I could continue with the sales, help with the cleaning and go on living next door to a cloud of flour without ill effect. It took two years of happy healthy highs contrasting with very deep ill lows to realize the mistake, and even longer to find the way out. We decided to quit baking bread without anything definite to turn to - we couldn't try out new products while continuing to bake bread because everything would be contaminated with wheat, and towards the end of the year, when our part-time helpers had moved on to other things, planning (ordinary conversation, too) was difficult as Shuzo was trapped inside the floury building and I was barred from entering.

Two months in to the new endeavor, now, things are beginning to fall in to place. We've gone through a long lit of products and traveling deli menus, and even settled on a new name (because though Hototogisu Bakery and Farm continues to work in English, パン屋ホトトギスin Japanese has "bread" in it - a deli, however, can be anything we want) and we've come out with a focus (or two, or three. but we're trying to stick to one at a time). The very expensive ovens being too big to move now that we've added a shop and deck to the original building, and our largest single crop being rice, rice flour baked goods are a logical choice, and now that we've found a place that will make superfine flour for us and settled on a few recipes that perform well and consistenly, rice flour baked goods are looking like a financially viable choice as well. There are an awful lot more things we want to make - we also grow black soybeans and have very large and expensive fermenting equipment, so we'll manage tempeh or natto before too long - but the Traveling Deli gives us an outlet for those things and a good reason to keep growing all the fun veggies. Clarity grows day by day!

(That was a very long story! I can't imagine many (any?) of you read all that, but if you did - thanks! At any rate, writing it out has been very helpful, and if blogger doesn't eat my post here I should be able to come back and pull out a few points for the webpage and upcoming webshop. Right?)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Gluten Free Goodies on Parade

That last post didn't have any photos, so this one will make up for it by being practically nothing but.

Here are some of our new gluten free goodies:
In order, maybe: savory donuts, savory cookies (red pepper and garlic, these), deep fried chicken and cheese "breaded" with coconut (so good - try it!), a mountain of cookies (these ones sweet - the chocolate ones are loved by all), a savory cookie with the tasty but un-appetizing-sounding chicken liver topping, and the grilled cheese biscuit sandwich I had for lunch today! Life is pretty good these days.

The Newest Gluten Free Bakery in Japan (that's us!)

Hey, it's Valentine's day. Happy Valentine's Day everyone! May chocolate flow freely wherever you are. 

Things here progress, though it is hard to believe it is already mid-February. We're slowly settling in to new routines - this year brought so many changes that a month and a half in few things yet go as expected, but we're getting the hang of elementary school (well, sort of) and seeing that we have two kids now comes as less of a shock each day (a happy shock, always, mind you; full of wonder and delight (and a small dose of exhaustion, but, as I say, happy exhaustion)). Family life is wonderful and very, very full. On the work side of things, the idea that I can not only walk into the bakery without fear but actually eat anything I find there is a source of constant delight - I had a fantastic grilled cheese sandwich today on a homemade biscuit with imported real cheese for the first time in YEARS today - totally made my day. So work life, too, is wonderful and, also, very very full (so much so that I am meant to be doing the bookkeeping right now, not wandering around the internet. Oops.).

Work has been a baffling puzzle these past few weeks, as we struggle to find that nice place where we make something that people want and we feel good about feeding them (still no brownies as Shuzo isn't too keen on feeding people in general, and perhaps me in particular, the amount of sugar involved). We've settled on the Hototogisu Bakery and Farm Traveling Deli (or 屋台デリホトトギス) for our serving-food-at-markets-and-events name and have tried out a number of different menus. At this point we are feeling pretty good about Okayama jidori chicken burgers on our (fantastic, if you don't mind my so saying) gluten free biscuits as the thing to run with ... we've a big weekend coming up so we'll see how that plays out! Other events will see my new favorite - a happy coincidence of extra biscuit dough and the deep-fryer have brought the world gluten free cheese covered savory donuts. (So, so good) The future begins to take shape!

In other areas, we've been checking out other gluten free stuff in Japan and discovering a)there seem to be more people looking for gluten free pet food than people food, and b) nearly all of the gluten free food to be found is imported and has ingredient lists three miles long. Given the state of things referred to in point b, we are really beginning to feel the webshop, that long-elusive Hototogisu goal, is hovering nearby. With a little (truthfully, a lot) of luck and similar amounts of focus and drive, we may be able to make it happen before summer. I am hoping we can manage it, because sharing the gluten free goodies with people who are allergic to wheat gives me such a boost! A little girl and her mama wandered in on Wednesday and when the mama told me her daughter was allergic to wheat I pretty well overwhelmed her with my joy that they had found me. They got some chocolate cookies as well as the more prosaic (but still yummy) biscuits - I hope that little girl gets as much happiness from them as I do. A webshop would mean the majority of our customers would be people like me, wandering in a land full of off-limits foods, to whom the gluten free goodies would be so much. Time to get to work!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A New Year, this 2013

Happy 2013!

This year is set to be one of big changes for us here at Hototogisu Bakery and Farm, as we get into the swing of gluten-free food production and simultaneously buckle down on the farm side of things.

As I'm writing this we have made it through the first round of introducing our new selves to most of our regular event customers - we've been to the Kyobashi Asaichi early morning market (the first place we sold bread after opening the bakery!) and to the Kurashiki Roji Ichiba (a wonderful weekly market that has become something of a home-away-from-home for me) and apologized to surprised-looking customers, handed out a new year's greeting Shuzo wrote up to help explain the changes and sold a few bowls of soup. Mostly chicken meatball soup made with chicken and veggies from our garden (sadly we don't produce kombu seaweed, salt or shitake mushrooms, so we had to buy those), as well as some garbanzo bean and wild boar stew and the Japanese sweet azuki bean soup oshiruko. All were very, very good (well, I'm taking the oshiruko on faith - I don't like sweet beans much anyway, and this batch had barley syrup left over from bread days), and the leftovers were a joy, as they meant I didn't have to cook lunch or dinner on Sunday (I write as though I were responsible for the cooking - in reality, I should say Shuzo didn't have to cook lunch or dinner, and I didn't have to clean the kitchen). So, things are looking promising.

The new gluten free menu remains very basic and will change a'plenty over the coming months, but if you see us out and about at an event or market, be sure we've got something yummy that is both home-made and home-grown.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Entering the Final Lap

One more week to go! We are entering the final week of being a gluten-filled bread baking bakery and heading toward exciting new things. I am mostly filled with happiness - the past two years of being surrounded by bread I couldn't eat and loved persons being covered in flour have been somewhat stressful, but at the same time, putting away all the unique recipes and the business we worked so hard to figure out how to run if not hugely profitably, at least in a way to support ourselves modestly, is a bit of a sad step. If anyone wants a bit of our sourdough starter (started a good decade ago when we lived in the States!) or some recipes, stop by very soon. We'd be glad to share.

So, goodbye sweet Pan Ya Hototogisu, I will miss you.

(probably I should end the post here and start a new one entitled: Hello New and Exciting Opportunities! But I am writing on my little ipod and am too lazy to do this, so bear with me.)

Luckily, new and exciting projects are on the horizon, and the problem will not be one of trying to figure out wat to do with our time. Immediately after Christmas we will (rather, Shuzo will - engaging in this project would knock me over and keep me down for weeks) clean the bakery and scrub and polish and vacuum and sort and just generally obliterate all traces of flour in the bakery (is anyone out there in the market for a used but fantastic stone mill?) in time for our debut as a gluten-free bakery on a very small scale in January, and in preparation for increasing the scope of our food-at-events-and-markets set-up. We are still working on the menu, but man-oh-man are we going to have some good food at next year's Kyobashi Asaichi and Kurashiki Roji Ichiba markets, and when the Roji Cafe Kurashiki reopens in late January (wait, I haven't mentioned the cafe here, have I - that will be a post for another day or, if you happen to be in Kurashiki of a wednesday and want some lunch, search facebook for the Roji Cafe page (you'll need to do that in katakana, I think)).

Good times and great health in the future!!

ps - if you know anyone in Japan struggling to stay gluten-free, send them my way. I've experience a-plenty to share and with a little luck in the kitchen will have gluten-free brownies (and oh-so-much-more!) to sell in the new year. health and yumminess to all!

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Gearing Up To Go Gluten Free

We`ve made it past the busiest breadiest time of year, and finally have a few minutes here and there to sit quietly at the computer (though not too very many minutes, as though the rice harvest is done - yay! we weren't sure we were going to manage - there are beans yet to be harvested and the chickens need some attention as soon as it gets light out there).

Big changes are a-coming, beginning with the move to take the bakery gluten free. Yay! Hooray! And also, yikes, a little bit. We are still deciding on the new products (not komekopan/rice flour bread), and won't be focusing exclusively on baked goods,but it'll be yummy, I tell you, even for those of you who can eat wheat without getting ill. Anyhow, as I have perhaps mentioned here before (or have I?), I found I have a gluten intolerance and went gluten free three years ago, a step which took me out of the bakery and helped my health immensely, but which left my husband and daughter dangerous items, covered in flour much of the time, and me liable to be attacked by flying flour when selling and bagging bread. Late this year we finally came to terms with the notion that being surrounded by flour was preventing my being as healthy as I ought and made the monumental decisions to stop baking bread and stop growing wheat. We won't stop baking or making food or growing stuff, though, so exciting times are ahead as we settle into a new shape. The last bread will come out of the oven on December 22nd, and after a massive clean to get rid of all the flour dust, look for us in Kurashiki on December 29th where we will be serving up (gluten free) soup made with our veggies and chicken, with the possible addition of wild boar. Great things to come in the new year!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Oh dear, has it really been four months? And I was trying so hard to be good and on top of things!

Well, let's see. We are surviving the hot summer - strange weather this year, with unexpected heavy rains that sent our backyard creek over the banks and into the house, more threatened typhoons than I've ever before noticed (no damage there - indeed, scarcely any wind at all made it our way), and the days varying from over 35 degree days to ones like today, with a disorienting late-September feel. All predictions would seem to suggest unpredictability for the future, though, do I guess it's time to get used to it.

We've got the usual full summer activities on - Shuzo spends all his spare time taking out weeds with the weed whacker, we wonder what to do with the glut of summer vegetables (must make pickles! no family could keep up with this cucumber harvest, though the chickens don't mind eating the spares. ), I wish I were hardier and more productive in the heat and periodically over-exert myself in a futile attempt at mind-over-matter, the wild boar make their appearances from time to time and generally the to-do list outstrips the have-done list by several meters. You won't find us looking around for ways to kill time!

Some summer photos:

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

It's a Red Letter Day

Okay, I don't really know what that expression means, but in my mind it carries the excitement I feel is due to today's event (trumpets blare):

the ukoke laid their first egg today!

(here I am pausing to let the applause die down)

These are very fancy eggs from very fancy chickens...evidently we know someone who sells them for 500 yen each. Perhaps tomorrow we will have the gumption to eat our new fancy egg.