Eat-Japan has now been all about Japanese food for ten years. Thanks to everyone who has supported the site and keep us bookmarked for the next ten!
In the first of a new series marking the tenth anniversary of Eat-Japan, we will be profiling the people – The Pioneers – who have been central to promoting Japanese food and drink in the UK. Kicking off is Christopher Dawson, fluent Japanese speaker, whole food promoter, dedicated organic activist – and Chairman of Clearspring, the UK’s leading brand of artisanal Japanese foods.
“It’s not really about me”, says Christopher Dawson, Chairman and Visionary-in-Chief at Clearspring, “Clearspring is the vehicle. I’m just the messenger. Clearspring is about helping current and encouraging new small-scale organic farmers and producers to carry on in the face of large-scale non-organic agriculture, and about bringing good food to as many people in as many countries as possible”.
Ever since it was bought by Christopher in 1993, Clearspring has been putting traditional, artisan and organic foods from Japan onto tables throughout Europe. In the past 15 years sales have increased twelve-fold, and today it distributes 135+ products, 71 of which are Japanese, to 32 countries. At the heart of the company is Christopher, a sprightly New Zealander, whose exacting standards dictate every product choice. His dedication to promoting products made by traditional methods in family businesses across Japan saw him awarded, in 2007, the Award for Overseas Promotion of Japanese Food by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. But, as he says, it’s not about him.
CHRISTOPHER’S FAVOURITES:Try the following recipes for a taste of the Dawson table
Miso Soup with WatercressMake up some miso soup with Clearspring’s classic recipe, then add a generous handful of fresh watercress.
Pumpkin with Mochi and OnionsHeat some oil in a frying pan and heat some chopped onion. Add some chopped pumpkin, fry gently, then add a little water and soy sauce; steam with the lid on until the pumpkin becomes soft. Add some Brown Rice Mochi, then replace the lid. Wait until the mochi have melted, then serve. Clearspring Agar Flakes. Heat gently until the agar dissolves, then pour through a sieve into moulds. Place some slices of orange on top, then leave to set at room temperature or in the fridge.
The Clearspring story begins in rural New Zealand, “just about as far as you can get from anywhere”, says Christopher. “So I was always interested in the rest of the world”. His interest in the world was followed by an interest in food, sparked by a loaf of whole wheat bread baked for the teenage Christopher by his aunt Joyce. He started to study about vegetarianism, which led to an interest in organic farming.
In 1974, Christopher made his way to the UK to further his studies on organic agriculture. But the vegetarian diet available to him in those days was “somewhat bland”. That same year, Christopher came across something that was to change his life forever – and ultimately lead to the establishment of the Clearspring brand: a bowl of miso soup.
“I used to like gravy as a child, so I immediately liked the flavour”, says Christopher. “And I still have a bowl every day, no matter where I am”. Miso was part of the burgeoning trend for macrobiotics at that time, and Christopher was an instant convert to the movement. “I saw it as a way of changing the way we eat, economically, socially and politically. It struck me how we could start to create effective change through the kitchen”.
The natural foods movement in the 1970s focused on the way in which people, particularly urban dwellers, had become disconnected from nature and from natural food sources. The industrialization of agriculture and an increasing demand for the year-round availability had caused a shift away from seasonality in eating and the sustainable use of land for crops and livestock. “But then there was this country,” says Christopher, “which was feeding 127 million people despite being only 25% arable”. That country was Japan, where Christopher first visited in 1979. He was impressed enough to make a permanent move there, in 1980, to work for Mitoku, an exporter of organic Japanese foods.
For the next 18 years, Christopher’s work was all about seeking out small-scale family producers still working to time-honoured recipes, supporting them, and helping them through the difficult processes involved in gaining organic accreditation. The export business is now crucial to the survival of these businesses: “It’s sad to say that, in many cases, Japan’s small businesses – which often only make a single product – can only keep going with orders from abroad. And there’s a family behind each product, and these are the people I’ve spent thirty years working with”.
In 1993, Christopher bought Clearspring, then a local UK wholesaler, and began a new mission: introducing Japan’s traditional, artisan foods to the UK. But why the UK and not New Zealand? “I want to see the highest quality vegetarian foods become internationally available, and the UK is a better base for that. My role now is to assist the many farmers in Japan who are struggling to keep traditions alive, by being responsible for their sales and marketing.”
Clearspring products are now a familiar sight on the shelves of UK supermarkets and health food stores alike, from double-strength tamari, a wheat-free soya sauce produced by the Aoki family in Aichi Prefecture, to green teas carefully picked at the Nagata tea farm in Kyoto, or rare Hatcho miso, made in just one street in one town in Japan. Over the past ten years, the British public has grown much more conscious about the importance of eating healthily – and this is surely one of the factors behind Clearspring’s success over the past decade. “It’s like I’ve always said,” says Christopher. “If you want to eat well, look out of the window. By which I mean, adapt to your environment, eat what’s in season. I do bring in products from Japan, but that’s because I want everyone to have access to the highest quality vegetarian foods, and at the moment, when it comes to things like miso and soy sauce, Japan is the place where they are being made”.
And that’s the crux of what Christopher’s decade has been about – getting foodstuffs made with great care to both taste and environmental impact into our local supermarkets. But how can we start reaping the benefits? For many people, it’s hard enough to get enough fruit and veg a day, let alone start cooking traditional Japanese or macrobiotic meals at home. So what tips does Christopher have for boosting the daily diet with Japanese ingredients? “Swap salt for Tamari in your soups and seasonings; use and enjoy it on a daily basis to reap the benefit of soya. Swap your usual stimulants for miso soup. It’s better to make it from scratch, but if you can’t try one of our Instant Miso Soups. Or we have a Miso Bouillon that’s also very versatile. Soya is a powerhouse of nutrients, it’s really worth getting it into your diet”. But most importantly, says Christopher, we need to “acclimatise. Eat whole grains, seasonal vegetables, choose artisan products that help small agricultural businesses – and that way help make a larger change in the way we use our arable land”.
You can get started with a great Clearspring recipe, using deliciously nutty and nutritious soba noodles here. Then find more inspiration at the Clearspring online recipe pages. You can also subscribe to a monthly newsletter to keep up to date with Christopher and Clearspring.
Clearspring products are available in Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and most other major supermarkets, organic / natural food stores and Japanese / Oriental grocery stores. You can purchase online and find out about stockists at www.clearspring.co.uk. Also see our online directories of retail stockists and buyer contacts.