Let me tell you the story of the Butterbur sometimes known as Coltsfoot bud. I first encountered this vegetable thirty years ago at a fancy traditional Japanese restaurant that served them as tempura. Their slightly bitter grassy aroma contrasted well with the lightest oily crunch and were a definite highlight of the meal. However, when seen packaged in my local supermarket they joined the plethora of green leafy items that looked “all too hard” to imagine what to do with them and therefore never made it into my shopping basket.
Fast forward to late January 2020 when I was honored to be invited to provide some Ikebana flower arrangements for a wonderful exhibition of international artists inspired by Kyoto entitled “Kyoen”. Late winter is a challenging period for Ikebana practitioners given the dearth of floral and vegetal material that occur at that time. Realizing my predicament, I enlisted my trusted supplier, septugenarian retired florist Ueno-san for help. Ueno-san owns a mountain in a nearby prefecture and she regularly drives two and half hours from Kyoto to source unusual and natural materials that flourish in each micro-season. I needed a variety of plants given that I was asked to make at least four arrangements. Unlike commercial florists that can conjure all manner of materials because of “hot-house” artificial growing culture, Ueno-san’s treasures can only be taken if the micro-season provides them on the mountain. Although I was furnished with some wonderful large branches that would be perfect for my bigger scale arrangements, Ueno-san was drawing a blank as to what she could offer for my more delicate assignment. Eminently practical with her fifty years or more in the trade, I suddenly saw a flash of inspiration come across her face and before I knew it, she disappeared into an adjacent room and after foraging for a moment emerged with a small scoop. She then lead me to her vacant lot next to her downtown Kyoto shop/traditional home and proceeded to dig into what just looked like a patch of dirt. Very soon emerged a series of what seemed to be dormant tubers with delicate stalks ending in thumb-shaped balls in rounded clusters of the lightest pale green. “Aaaa fuki-no-to” (Butterbur/Coltsfoot bud) she proudly announced smile beaming. It really was a lot of fun to arrange these triffid-like vegetables in an avant-garde tubular metal vase for the exhibition.
So this year, having developed a fondness for this unusual material, I didn’t hesitate to return to Ueno-san to see if Butterbur could be unearthed in reprise. Alas she had cleared the vacant lot but assured me that she would search in earnest on her next foray to her mountain. In just a few days, she proudly gave me a bucket of Butterbur with mud still attached to the tuberous roots. As I zoomed away on my motorbike with my new treasure sloshing around in a plastic bag in the front basket, I reflected on how wonderful my connection with this Japanese lady was. Over the last few years, we have developed a mutual fondness for each other. We rhapsodize over what is blooming and in season and celebrate the beauty of nature. There is no artificial politeness around her being an elderly Japanese and me being a middle aged foreigner; just a shared sense of humor and a deep love of plants. Upon arriving home, rather than make an Ikebana arrangement this year, I elected to transfer the mass of tuberous buds into a celadon ceramic bowl and for the past week, I have had the pleasure of watching the delicate buds unfurl.
When I asked Ueno-san how I should cook the delicate Butterbur fuki-no-to, her immediate enthusiastic reply was to make tempura. To be honest, I am not adept at deep frying to be able to get the feather light consistency that characterized the delicious tempura I had eaten thirty years ago. Therefore when I asked her for an easier alternative, she suggested chopping the buds into small pieces and after putting into cold water to remove any bitterness, I was instructed to mix them with a good quality miso and eat them as an hors d’oeuvre with my favorite sake. Although this method of preparation seems far less intimidating, I have to say I am enjoying the flowering of the buds a little too much to consider sacrificing them to the chopping board just yet…..Instead I cheated and bought a handmade jar of Butterbur Miso fuki-no-to miso from my favorite Japanese noodle store. Now I just need to pour myself a glass of sake. Buon appetit! Itadakimasu!