Traditional Hand-crafted Miso

Anna Bond

See main story: Working Alchemy: The Miracle of Miso

Soybeans, koji and cold salt are very a preacher with a drum.

Miso has revealed its alchemical power in diverse situations around the world. But like many other foods, miso, once traditionally made in individual households, has been largely industrialized. Factory misos are made entirely by computer-controlled machinery, producing Wonder Bread misos, complete with additives and preservatives.

If we seek preacher-and-drum, alchemical miso, we must look at the source of the ingredients, the consciousness and skill with which the ingredients are prepared, and the heart of the miso makers. I find those three touchstones solidly present in South River Miso Company, the last remaining shop producing miso on a commercial scale, yet still completely following the traditional handcrafting methods. Since 1982,
South River has produced about 400,000 pounds of miso.

Visiting this unique miso shop, I was greeted by the fragrance of koji culturing grain in the small, all-wood koji closet. Nestled in the hills in rural western
Massachusetts, the shop sits in the midst of long grain rice, bean and vegetable beds, even including a patch of heading rice.

There is a peaceful presence in and around the shop coming from the surrounding woods and fields, but also from the quiet reverence of the eight miso shop workers moving intently through the traditional, Japanese-style wooden building. The massive masonry stove at the heart of the shop gives off a gentle, sustained heat. The aroma of the cedar koji trays, the steaming grains, the residual yeasts and molds that have become one with the post-and-beam building itself transport me back to another era in another land. Christian Elwell, founder and owner of South River, guides me through the shop, explaining the purpose of the evenly spaced gaps in the tiled floor as spirit holes connecting the earth below to the inside of the shop, thus allowing unimpeded chi circulation.

Christian modestly calls himself the grounds keeper, tending to the life of the earth and to the shop where the miso is fermented.
South River uses only wood fired cooking in their processing, and only wooden fermentation vats, where the miso ages through the heat of summer and the winter's cold. Salt, the passage of time and the extremes of temperature assure that only the hardiest of enzymes, bacteria and yeasts survive.

When we dilute a miso in our daily soup, these beneficial microorganisms are activated, and replenish our own intestinal flora—essential after taking antibiotics, consuming sugar, coffee or alcohol, drinking or bathing in chlorinated water, smoking tobacco or other plants, and being exposed to pollution of all kinds.

Traditional miso, always unpasteurized, is a living, breathing food. Add it to your soup only when the soup itself is fully cooked. Let it simmer—but not boil—three or four minutes to allow the flavors to mingle.

South River, every aspect of the cooking and culturing is carefully carried out. The cooking of the beans directly by wood fire is, of necessity, a very long, slow and gentle process; otherwise they could easily burn. "We give the beans seven hours of active boiling," Christian explains. They are then left in the masonry stove overnight, where they are allowed to continue cooking. This contrasts starkly with the intense and quick pressure steaming used in commercial miso making today.

Like the wine makers of old with their grapes, South River miso makers crush the cooked beans underfoot, wearing cotton stockings designed for this process. The koji—which has also been inoculated, tended, harvested and salted entirely by hand—is also mixed with the crushed beans. This process, by its very nature, results in a miso with chunky texture, which in turn encourages a more complex fermentation and flavor. Traditional miso is never pasteurized or blended.

Plant substances—like the beans, grain, koji, even the salt and the myriad unseen microorganisms—absorb vibrational fields around them. The energy streaming through our human hands and feet into the food is of a very different quality than the mechanical energy of a machine. Bread makers and massage therapists are completely aware of this difference. Likewise, the quality of heat from a gentle wood fire and exposure to the cycles of four seasons is pleasing to our body.

Foods prepared in reverence carry a pleasing imprint into our cells, and in turn engender a new consciousness in us, one that can conceive of food as the bearer of healing life forces, of food as high medicine. Miso, the alchemical food par excellence, is an especially sensitive carrier of healing impulses, as it looses and extracts the very life force from the vital foods that nourish us.

You can contact South River Miso Company at 413-369-4057 and South River Miso.