Reconnecting with Food: South River Miso

In a world that relies so heavily on over-the-counter drugs and prescriptions as a way to cure our ailments, the healing power of food tends to be forgotten. “We’re all kind of uprooted from food,” said Christian Elwell, co-owner of South River Miso in Conway, Massachusetts. Christian and his wife Gaella founded their miso company in 1979 as a way to connect people back to their food.

South River Miso, located in the hills of Conway, Massachusetts.

Christian was inspired by the work of Weston A. Price, a dentist who discovered that perfect health stems from eating unprocessed, traditional diets. “It was out of that mind view that we decided to make miso,” he said.

Struck by the beauty and “unspoiled atmosphere” of the Valley, Christian and Gaella decided to bring their business to Conway. Tucked away from the road in a rustic wooden building that overlooks the South River, it is clear to see why. The Japanese inspired decorations inside the building certainly shed light on South River Miso’s commitment to tradition.

Miso, which first came about in Japan in 800 AD, is made through the fermentation of grains and beans. The fermentation process is the culprit behind miso’s numerous health benefits. Miso aids in the digestion and absorption of nutrients and strengthens the digestive system. Traditional miso is made with either rice or barley and soybeans, although South River Miso uses a variety of different grains and beans in order to create their ten different types of miso.

Miso fermenting in a large wooden vat.

The process of creating miso first involves fermenting the grain, which causes a “koji” culture to grow. The fermented grain is mixed with cooked beans and salt, and is then fermented in large wooden vats for anywhere between three weeks and fifteen years. The longer the miso is fermented, the darker the color becomes. The different colored misos yield very different flavors, aromas, and protein levels.

The different colors of miso reflect a longer fermentation process and cause differences in texture, taste, and aroma.

In keeping with the Japanese tradition, all miso (with the exception of the white miso) at South River Miso is mixed by foot. Everyone involved in the mixing process wears clean cotton socks and plastic over their legs, so that no bacteria can get into the miso. According to Christian, mixing the miso this way improves the quality of the food. “Human energy is going into the food. [It is created] with intention and attention”. During the mixing process, mature, already fermented, miso is added to the young miso. This jump starts the fermentation process and connects the miso back to its creation. Much like humans, miso has deep ancestral roots.

South River Miso is sold at most health food stores in the Valley, and is a featured ingredient at Paul and Elizabeth’s and the Green Bean restaurants in Northampton. “We are influencing the kitchens, the tables, of a lot of people,” said Christian.

Reconnect with your food.  Discover the power of miso!

Dig in,

Samantha Winter 2012 Amherst Food Warrior