Micro-season 3

魚上氷 Uo kōri o izuru :
Fish emerge from the ice.

立春 Risshun (Beginning of Spring): February 14-18

Although the concept of the micro-seasons is both ancient and timeless, I confess to being challenged to remain completely faithful to all the poetic phrases that so eloquently describe each moment in the annual cycle. Especially as an urban dweller in the 21st century, I had to rack my brains as to where I was going to get pictorial representation of “fish emerging from ice”. As temperatures rise, the water in lakes and rivers warms, the ice cracks and the fish start to move more. Yes, we still need constant reminders that spring is just around the corner. I chuckled when I saw a post on social media that spoke more frankly of the up and down nature of the emerging season. In modern reckoning, the three micro-seasons of risshun could be renamed as follows: “1/ Fools Spring, 2/ Second Winter, 3/ Spring of Deception”. Interesting to note that all monikers derive from the standpoint of human comfort.

Early Spring citrus fruit in the neigborhood.

Early Spring in Japan is also a delight for the plethora of citrus fruits that flood the supermarkets here in Kyoto. Every week there seems to be yet another new variety to tempt the consumer. I was surprised that a “reference chart” appeared adjacent to the saleable produce to explain the relative sweet/sourness of the myriad choices. Personally I like both sweet and sour tastes and it might indicate my laziness, but I have a distinct preference for seedless varieties.

On the sweet end of the spectrum: dekopon

On the sweet end of the spectrum, I have a particular soft spot for the euphonically satisfying variety called dekopon. These fruits have a distinctive knobby protuberance where they have been attached to the tree. Easy to peel with thick powdery skin they are incredibly sweet. On the other end of the tartness scale my favorites are hassaku with their slightly bitter quality that also makes for an excellent homemade marmalade jam. Did I mention that not so coincidentally both dekopon and hassaku are seedless!

On the astringently tart end of the scale: hassaku

The choice is a little overwhelming but it is a great pleasure to be eating things as they arrive “just in season” shun from the farmer direct, knowing that unlike so many other imported or “trans-seasonal” fruits, these citrus have been delivered within the last few days or week. This kind of seasonality which our grandparents took for granted in the days before globalized transportation and cold storage has now been rebranded especially to appeal to the more “upmarket” consumer who has the discretionary income to make an informed choice. It has already been a few decades since some trendy chefs in the Bay area of Northern California coined the phrase: “from farm to table”, the meaning of which included this commitment to “authentic” seasonality. I prefer the poetic economy of the word that the Japanese have been using for centuries to denote seasonality of produce: shun or “whats just in season right now”.

What fruit would be shun for you at this moment? Its no wonder that “Farmers Weekend Markets” have proliferated in urban Australian centers in the last few years in a trend that followed California. Interestingly, visiting a market often in an outdoor setting has completely changed the meaning of food and vegetable shopping. What was previously an onerous chore at a suburban mall has become a social activity to catch up with friends and community, often whilst juggling a caffe latte with a recycled box or eco-bag full of the following week’s inspiration for meals. Often there is even some time for casual banter with the stall owner and customers tend to develop loyalties to their favorite producers. It is a distinct contrast to the anonymous electronic “self checkouts” that have come to dominate most up to date supermarkets. What’s more, shoppers can often arrive home with a luscious bunch of leaves attached to the produce they have bought which gives them a sense of the whole plant and the process of growth. Quite the subject for a still life painting never mind for eating! Slowing down key parts of our everyday life is an opportunity for reinvention and gratitude.