Spain's town of Soba warms to buckwheat
MATSUMOTO, Nagano Prefecture--When Yoshihiro Yamazaki heard that a Spanish village was named Soba, the buckwheat noodle-loving hotel operator took it as a good omen.
Sure enough, soba (buckwheat) originating from Nagano Prefecture is now being cultivated in northern Spain, thanks to Yamazaki's eager efforts.
Yamazaki, 52, who runs the Hotel Tamanoyu here, got the ball rolling when he participated in a cultural exchange event called the Festival de Una Flor (One Flower Festival) in Comillas, in Spain's Cantabria province, last October.
He said he wanted Spanish people to enjoy soba the way he does, so when he learned about the village of Soba, he believed that buckwheat would flourish there.
The province's government is also interested in the experimental cultivation of buckwheat in hopes that it can be turned into a cash crop.
Early last year, Yamazaki was invited to join in the exchange event by a Japanese contact.
"You are the only person we have found who can speak Spanish and is also an expert soba maker," the person said.
Yamazaki majored in Spanish at university. He also has a long-held love of soba making and eating. In fact, he makes soba noodles for his hotel's visitors.
After accepting the challenge, Yamazaki proposed growing buckwheat near the festival site and then making fresh noodles to serve the visitors.
He hoped the exchange would be an enduring one.
With approval from the Spanish government, Yamazaki and three other volunteers traveled to Spain in July last year to sow 20 kilograms of buckwheat seeds brought from Japan.
The three included Shoji Akabane, 58, a technical expert working for the Matsumoto Dental University, based in Shiojiri, Nagano Prefecture, who won a national amateur soba-noodle making contest in 2005.
Initially, the group planned to sow seeds at three locations. However, when a local staffer told them that a nearby village was called Soba, they knew that was the place they should sow.
"I felt it was fate," Yamazaki said.
The Soba village head loved their idea of growing soba in his village. A day after they made the proposal, a fallow field was offered. The village leader even helped the four Japanese plant the buckwheat.
At Santander, the provincial government seat of Cantabria, interest was soon stirred.
Both Nagano and Cantabria are highland regions with relatively cool climates.
Yamazaki met several agricultural officials when he arrived prior to the festival.
They told Yamazaki that they wanted to cultivate, on an experimental basis, several kinds of soba seeds in three locations in the province in different seasons.
The three locations vary in altitude, climate and soil quality.
The officials explained that the sites were all places where dairy farming had been prosperous until dairy shipments became restricted in recent years. Now, much dairyland lies fallow.
At the October festival, Yamazaki and several other Japanese kneaded the buckwheat dough, made noodles and boiled them up to serve in a hot broth.
About 170 people sampled bowls of soba, far more than the 120 initially expected. It was another good sign.
"I thought it showed that soba could be accepted in Spain," Yamazaki said.
After returning home, Yamazaki became the liaison between the Cantabria provincial government and the Nagano prefectural and Matsumoto city governments.
At the end of January, Comillas officials arrived in Japan to visit the city and prefectural government offices.
"In the future, we hope to establish commercial relations with Japan by exporting buckwheat flour to Japan," one official with the Cantabria provincial government said.
Yamazaki has high hopes.
"I hope this relationship will continue for a long time, even if it stretches thin (just like a soba noodle)," he said.(IHT/Asahi: February 25,2008)