In Conway, Mass., a Vineyard native takes an artisan approach to an ancient pantry staple
More Miso, Please
by Tony Rosenfeld
Christian and Gaella Elwell finally owned the task of making miso the day the meat grinder they were using to puree beans sputtered and stalled. Staring at an enormous vat of warm cooked soybeans, the couple decided their only option was to follow the traditional approach and tread the beans by foot. So Christian hopped over into the stainless steel vat and began crushing, following the ancient method he’d often read about but had been too inhibited to try.
Now some 25 years later, the folks who work at the Elwells’ South River Miso company in Conway tread all the beans for their many varieties of miso—with their feet bundled in organic cotton socks and plastic leggings. Though the method takes longer than the retired grinder, Christian likens the treading to a baker working dough by hand. The tactile feel offers greater control and also encourages a sort of spiritual interaction between human and food.
It’s a deeper connection which first drew the couple to make miso, the fermented Japanese paste traditionally made from soybeans, rice, and salt and used in soups, dressings and marinades. Spurred on by the teachings of the macrobiotic movement of the late ’70s and three months of miso-training at a school in California, the Elwells purchased a 40-acre farm in central Massachusetts and set out to make this Eastern staple on their own. Now the company has grown to 14 employees, and the Elwells sell their product over much of the East Coast, including here on the Vineyard where Christian grew up. But each week is still the same as it’s always been at South River with the preparation of 2 batches of miso. It’s just that each batch now weighs in at 1200 pounds.
The South River team begins the process with the koji, a grain (rice, barley, or millet) which they inoculate with bacteria and then steam. The koji powers the miso’s flavor profile as a starter does a sourdough bread. Next they cook the beans (generally soybeans, though the Elwells also use garbanzos and azuki) in a wood-fired cauldron for about eight hours until soft and then tread the legumes once they cool slightly. Finally, the team mixes the koji and crushed beans and transfers the mixture to cypress vats to ferment for at least three weeks and up to three years. There, the misos intensify as they sit, concentrating all of that hard work into vibrant, wonderfully flavorful nourishment.