My friend Eirik is involved in the restauration of the fantastic Mylna (mill) in Voss…incredible to think that this would be no more if it hadn’t been for a group of private people fronted by one of Norway’s first environmentalists, Ivar B. Løne, who became vegetarian in the 70s and founded Friends of the Earth in Bergen (Naturvernforbundet) and also has done much for Vossakvann (the old variety of Angelica which was the main reason for our visit). He was also way ahead of his time with local slow food like his barley and Jerusalem artichoke flat bread! One of the real heros of our time, now in his 90s!
On 7th August, I went on my first “Kvannsafari” near the mountain village Voss in south western Norway
Kvann is Norwegian Mountain Angelica, Angelica archangelica ssp. archangelica, one of the most important plants in Norwegian history, used as a vegetable back to the times of the Vikings and an important exported medicinal herb in the past. It was a very important vegetable of the Sami people! In my book “Around the World in 80 plants”, I tell the story of a special form of kvann, known as Vossakvann, traditionally cultivated in special Kvann-yards (kvannagard) on the farms in this area. A good historical review of this plant can be found in Ove Fosså’s paper (see http://archangelica.no/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Angelica_Fossaa.pdf and, in Norwegian, http://www.skogoglandskap.no/Artsbeskrivelser/vossakvann).
The aim of our trip was to visit one of the last farms still growing Vossakvann, Olde in Bordalen. Vossakvann has almost filled (solid) leaf and flower stalks whilst wild plants are hollow …in other words, there’s more “flesh”… It is also milder tasting, perhaps because there’s more flesh, the plant producing the same amount of bitter substances which are spread over a larger volume?
Jorunn Ringheim Hernes, who had recently retired from Landbruksrådgivning (the agricultural advisory service) in Voss, had arranged with the farmer, Knut Arvid Olde, to visit. Some years ago, Jorunn had sent me a couple of plants from a different line of Vossakvann, Elgje. Sadly, this line had recently been lost due to the seed not germinating. Further, a third line at Markusteigen has almost disappeared locally due to the fact that the kvannagard had not been looked after (repeatedly cut down) and only 3-4 plants could be found on a visit there last week. The farmer is now aware of this and will try to look after and build up the kvannagard again! The Markusteigen line is the one line from which plants still exist away from Voss (in Oslo and in Orkanger) (seed were collected a few years ago).
I’d heard that Knut Arvid Olde was enthusiastic to conserve this unique variety on the farm and this was confirmed during our visit, although there was a sense of panic in his voice when he heard that his kvannagard was the only one left, partly as he had planned to sell some of the harvest to a local cheese producer! There were about 30 flowering stalks full of seeds and below the plants many self-sowed young plants. I was surprised that all the young plants I tested had solid stalks and Knut Arvid said that they hadn’t selected for this property… I had previously learned that only a percentage of seed propagated plants had the characteristics of Vossakvann, but here they all seemed to be true to form!
Jorunn Hernes will return in a week or two to collect seed during drier weather (it was wet during our visit and only a few seed were ripe). Landbruksrådgivning also have a project to make a trial kvannagard and Knut Arvid was positive that it could be on his land using his line!
Norwegian Seed Savers is, confusingly here, called KVANN (see http://kvann.org) as this is our most important native useful plant traditionally. We have a project, coordinated by Karl Aa (see http://archangelica.no for more information in Norwegian and links) in which we are trying to conserve the different lines of Vossakvann with help of the seed saver network and perhaps also further develop a more stable cultivar.
The genus Angelica has about 80 species distributed throughout the Northern hemisphere, of which around 25 are found in Japan. Around the world various Angelica species have been used traditionally for food and medicine, notably the Europe to Himalayas species Angelica archangelica, used since ancient times in various ways and the most well-known wild edible in Norway, where we have the domesticated form Vossakvann (see my book) with filled stems:
In Japan, no less than 11 species are covered in my most comprehensive Japanese foraging book, Ikozo Hashimoto’s Edible Wild Plants Encyclopedia (in Japanese). On my study trip to Japan in late March / early April 2016, we spent a few days on the scenic Izu Peninsula, a couple of hours from Tokyo. Here we found the best known Japanese species, Angelica keiskei (ashitaba) for sale in a supermarket (picture).
I wrote about my first encounter with this species here: http://www.edimentals.com/blog/?page_id=1385
(the Japanese name ashitaba means “tomorrow’s leaves”, referring to the plants very quick response to being damaged)
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but ashitaba is endemic to the island Hachijō-jima (jima means island), one of a string of volcanic islands in the Pacific roughly 190 km south of Izu. Apart from Hachijō, ashitaba is cultivated on some of the other islands, including Izu Ōshima, Mikura-jima, Nii-jima and To-shima. It is also grown on the mainland (Honshū). Hachijo has a humid subtropical climate with very warm summers and mild winters, so it’s not surprising it didn’t overwinter in my garden and grew only slowly through the summer (more like winter in Hachijo!). It is an important plant for the local cuisine on the island where both the leaf and flower stalks, flower buds and roots are used in many types of dish from soba (buckwheat pasta), tempura, the alcoholic shōchū, as well as tea, cakes, konjac and even ice cream and is promoted for its health giving properties. In Izu oshima, it is fried in Camellia tea oil, an oil with a sweet, herbal aroma, cold-pressed from the seeds of Camellia oleifera. It is relatively strong tasting and is therefore mostly eaten in oily dishes like tempura or diluted for a milder taste. A nutrient analysis of ashitaba can be found here: http://www.mext.go.jp/b_menu/shingi/gijyutu/gijyutu3/toushin/05031802/002/006.pdf
Interestingly, the variety grown on Mikura-jima is said to be the best as it is less bitter. This variety has “thick” stems, which calls to mind our own thick stemmed Vossakvann variety which is also milder tasting! Varieties on other islands are said to be distinct, having coloured stems.
The most common species we saw in southern Honshu was shiny leaved Angelica japonica (hamaudo, meaning Udo growing on the beach). Many consider it to be “poisonous” (which probably signifies that it is stronger tasting), but it certainly is used in similar ways to ashitaba and we even encountered a local foraging what was probably this species on Izu (see the film at http://www.edimentals.com/blog/?p=9672).
More information can be found in the captions below, which includes pictures of other Angelica species seen in botanical gardens in Kyoto and Tokyo and even ashitaba being grown as a house plant in the mountains near Nagano. My friend Andrew McMilllion in Southern Norway has discovered this wonderful plant and is growing it indoors (in flower as I write this in mid-January).
Thanks to Tei Kobayashi for showing me around on the visit to Nagano and Ken Minatoya-Yasuda for translating some of the text in my foraging book!