text by Michiko Watanabe / photographs by Daisuke Nakajima / English text by Susan Rogers Chikuba
“Our shrubs are grown from seedlings brought to Japan from Germany in 1965. After that, European growers began to selectively breed for larger fruit with tougher skins, for harvesting by machine. Ours are the original stock, and you can taste the difference,” says Kenji Hayashi of the robust black currant variety his father, a chestnut farmer, first planted in Aomori on a whim, in collaboration with Hirosaki University.
Kenji Hayashi insists that it’s Mother Nature who does all the work, but his farm exudes the love he invests in it.
Hayashi is one of about 100 growers in the Aomori Cassis collective.
He uses no agrochemicals and insists on handpicking, a labor-intensive process that peaks for two weeks in July. “You can’t beat handpicked quality,” he says. Fresh black currants have a short shelf life, so much of the harvest is flash-frozen for delivery to restaurant, hotel, and pastry chefs, or turned into the 100-percent puree, jam, and powder sold online.
College students assist with the harvest. It takes an hour to pick 1 kg of berries.
The currants are sorted by size. Those to be marketed fresh are weighed right in the field.
Gelatos, jam, and juice are among the flavor-packed items sold online.
Berries of the same cluster ripen at different speeds, so the picking is done by hand.
“It’d soon be a jungle if we weren’t always cutting and clearing,” says Kenji Hayashi of the hillock where he tends chestnut trees and black currant shrubs.