We couldn’t have come at a better time – during summer in Bhutan, the land is impressively shrooming with mushrooms, peaches, plums, flowers of all colours! In this post, we languish in Bhutan’s simplicity and explore her down-to-earth and back-to-basic ways in appreciating what nature has blessed her with. Bhutan has banned the sales of pesticides and herbicides, and agriculture is wholly organic, so much so that few products are labelled organic anymore. The epitome of sustainability, we have much to learn from the ambition and determination of Bhutan. Our farm-to-table theme itinerary led us through pristine greens, shades so deep. We hiked through muddy fields and grassy slopes under a sun sometimes golden and warm, and at other times, piercing and harsh. We’ve got a foretaste of what the farmers go through on a daily basis, subject to the mercy of nature. We visited factories and farmers’ markets and roadside stalls, and realised efficient food production doesn’t have to take place in fancy schmancy setups.
Centenary Farmers’ Market
As you may have already read in our earlier post, the Centenary Farmers’ Market is one of the biggest domestic markets for Bhutanese farmers. Located near the main town in Thimphu, the double-storied building houses about 400 stalls selling organic and seasonal produce of vegetables, fruits, rice, spices, mushrooms etc, as well as incense and a cozy little cafeteria.
Vendors typically arrive by Thursday evening and the market buzzes on throughout the weekend. This is where you can find most of Bhutan’s colours! The sprawling grounds were clean, dry and well maintained with obliging vendors who happily allowed us to snap endless photos.
Given the sheer number of stalls in the market, we did have some difficulty selecting our produce. Being the ‘kiasu’ Singaporeans that we are, we were determined to browse through each stall before we decided on the produce we wanted and the stalls we wanted to purchase from. We certainly spent a pretty awesome afternoon in the windy market!
Summer’s the season for nakey, curly and tender fern fronds also known as fiddlehead ferns, as well as the highly-prized matsutake mushrooms. In Japan, matsutake mushrooms are really pricey so I was souper pleased to find them in amazing abundance and affordability in this market! Look how dwarfed my hands are compared to these beautiful mushrooms! Only two stalls had the mushrooms in these sizes, and we had to buy at least 500g of mushroom according to the vendors.
Druk Asia had informed us earlier that this would be the season too for plums and peaches, and indeed, every fruit stall laid the stone fruits proudly in baskets, the rich purple of the plums and velvety cream and coral tones of the peaches glowing above other fruits. Till this day, I’m still very much amazed how such beautiful produce come from traditional farming methods free of chemicals.
Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten sits grandly on a ridge high above the Punakha Valley. This is a temple built by Her Majesty the Queen Mother, and dedicated to spiritual protection for the kingdom. Once up at the top of the four-storeyed temple, you get a commanding view of the rice fields, mountainous peaks, and the wind billows away in majesty. The highlight for us though was the hike from the foot of the hill on which the chorten is built. Ugyen had told us it would be a breezy 40-min hike, but our incessant need to pause to talk to farmers, touch and snap pictures of anything edible resulted in a longish hike of almost two hours!
Remember the nakey or fiddlehead ferns we bought in Centenary Farmers’ Market? It turned out that they grow wildly along the trail too, and with the help of Ugyen, we became fern foragers! I held a big bunch in my hands as I hiked across the muddy fields.
Along the way, we met this stout man with a dog next to him. His job was to clear the trails of fallen branches and loose stones so hikers and farmers traversing could have a safer path. He was quick to notice the ferns in our hands and pointed to Ugyen that more of half of what we picked were not nakey but inedible wild ferns! All thanks to him, we are still alive now! While waiting for us, our driver, Panda, who used to be a chef, also did some foraging for us, knowing how much we liked the nakey. In a matter of minutes, his reap was way higher than ours, and thankfully, all edible too!
Just before we ascended up the hill to the chorten, farmers were busy preparing the fields for rice planting. Look at the extensive varieties of food grown here! We even found an avocado tree uphill, the unripe avocados camouflaged by surrounding greens. It’s my first time picking avocados from the wild and they were gingerly wrapped so we could bring them back to Singapore.
This hike has made me think about food sustainability on a deeper level. Let us be thankful for whatever’s served before us. It’s the result of the hard work of many.
Once a widely-grown and prevalent traditional crop, buckwheat has been gradually abandoned by farmers for other cash crops such as rice and potatoes that provide higher yields with less effort. In Bumthang, where most of the buckwheat still grows, we were souper blessed to be able to join a farmer in his harvest of buckwheat.
That morning, the sun rose high and showered the russet buckwheat fields with a deeper glow. In the middle of the field sat a genial farmer in his sixties, whacking hard at the buckwheat stalks with a long stick. Ugyen spoke to the farmer on our behalf and we learned that the whacking was to ‘beat the seeds out’, after which the grain-like seeds go through a filter of sorts. The buckwheat harvests are then used as grain alternatives or milled as buckwheat flour to be made into pancakes, noodles and the likes. Now, as the buckwheat production dips into a further decline partly because of manpower shortage to beat out the seeds physically, even the husks which were typically discarded are now salvaged to be made into buckwheat husk pillows. Leftover stalks are also dried to become hay for animals during winter.
Did you know also that there is sweet buckwheat as well as bitter buckwheat and herbal buckwheat? This farmer grows the bitter ones, which looks somewhat different from the ones we get form the States. If the land is too fertile, sweet buckwheat can become bitter, so most farmers rotate crops in the same plot of land, for example, planting buckwheat after potatoes.
As a rough estimate, this farmer’s buckwheat field can yield only about 20kg of seeds or about 8 kg of buckwheat flour per harvest. According to Ugyen, buckwheat used to be food for the poor, but with its decline, prices have since gone up three-fold, and now it is food mainly for the richer ones in the community, or those who still yearn for a taste of nostalgia. Our host at Rinchenling Lodge in Bumthang, Dasho Jamphed Ngedup (Dasho is a title given by His Majesty the King to people who have been recognized for their services to the country), recalled he used to eat buckwheat all day – buckwheat pancakes for breakfast, buckwheat bread for lunch and buckwheat soup for dinner. Now, given its relative rarity, buckwheat noodles are typically served only at big gatherings, for instance, formal work functions. Even though Bumthang is a buckwheat-growing valley, production is low and yields have been underwhelming.
Those days in Bumthang after this field trip, I lingered over each buckwheat pancake we had with much thanks. The humble buckwheat has seen grander times, but its farm-to-table story is one that stirred my heart most.
Not far away from the buckwheat fields is the potato field. And what a buzzing field it was! Children were chasing one another around with dried mud stains on their knees, faces full of glee. We asked to help harvest the potatoes, and everyone welcomed us with bemusement. We bent down, picked up potatoes big and small, and threw them into baskets spread around the fields. After twenty minutes of harvesting, I looked up with pride at my basket, only to realise how much fuller the other baskets were. I don’t make too good a farmer, do I?
The farmers here used tractors kindly donated by Japan to plough the land and loosen the soil so harvesting is made easier. Dasho shared that when he was a child, potatoes were mostly homegrown in a small kitchen patch for own consumption. In the 1970s, potato farming became large scale, and potatoes were regarded as a cash crop for sale to India.
I’m besotted with these wild orange raspberry-like berries! Ugyen said they are root berries, and throughout our three days in Bumthang, we carried with us little bottles to pluck and collect these pretty berries. They can be found almost anywhere, some even next to wild marijuana (Yes, you read right – marijuana grows in abundance here. No wonder it’s called ‘weed’!). Ugyen had a penchant for spotting the berries and would climb up high to pluck the plumpest juiciest ones for us. The best guide in Bhutan, truly! These berries may look like raspberries, but taste like sweet ripe mangoes. I couldn’t stop popping them!
Red Panda Beer Brewery
Not too far from Rinchenling Lodge where we stayed was this humble brewery, so small we thought it was someone’s home when we drove past it one day. This brewery makes the “Red Panda Beer”, a Weiss beer that is un-filtered and free of preservatives. Production is kept small, and goes through the traditional beer brewing method of cooking barley and malted barley from India and hops from Germany, boiling, pumping, filtration and fermentation. True to Bhutan’s sustainable and green practices, bottles are recycled, and even the processed barley are given to the cows. “Cows very happy!” quipped the factory guide.
For 5USD, you get a guided tour and a bottle of beer. We chilled ours and shared with our Ugyen, Panda and our hosts ar Rinchenling Lodge. I’m not quite the drinker but the men were clinking glasses and making plans to buy more, so you know this beer has to be pretty good!
On a side note, we finally knew why our driver, Panda, is nicknamed as such! He loves their beer and since he also turns red after some drinks, and looks jolly like the red panda, he was nicknamed after the “Red Panda Beer”! How cute!
Bee Farm and Honey Factory
In July when we visited, it was honey harvesting season, but we were told that there was a global shortage of bees and production is limited. The honey factory owner almost didn’t let us buy any honey as his priority was to sell to the locals, particularly the restaurants and lodges. We were finally allowed to buy a limited quantity after Ugyen persuaded him to let us bring some back to Singapore to share with our customers.
Like many local factories, this bee farm and honey factory run a small production. There was an elderly lady using a small machine to bottle the honey from barrels, and a younger lady to cap the bottles manually before packing them in cartons of twelve. She’s also the one sticking the labels on the bottles. The modest set-up is typical of Bhutanese agricultural landscape, and it made me particularly mindful about not wasting food. Even honey is becoming such a precious commodity!
Visit www.BhutanHoney.org for more information on the honey produced in Bhutan!
Swiss Cheese Factory
When the car first turned into Bumthang Valley, I sat up in awe and rubbed my eyes. It is beautiful. Without the prayer flags, I could almost believe that I was in Switzerland with the expansive meadows, wild brilliant flowers and wispy clouds. So it’s no surprise Swiss cheese is savoured in Switzerland-like Bumthang! The founder of the Swiss Cheese Factory in Bumthang, Friz Maurer, came to Bhutan more than 40 years ago responding to an advertisement in a Swiss newspaper for a cheese-maker in the land of the Thunder Dragon.
We weren’t allowed into the factory when processing is underway for hygiene purposes, but the guide very kindly allowed us to view the equipment used. With basic machines, this factory produces a wide variety of cheese, including gouda and emmental. The gouda is kept for at least three years to mature in taste, and the witty guide shared, “With customer, three years, ready! No customer, another three years!” There was a small sampling station at the souvenir counter, and the lady generously served us a big slab of emmental cheese. So tasty!
This culinary sojourn has certainly humbled us city dwellers as we find a slower pace in life with a deepened appreciation for the work that goes behind the food brought before us on the table. Food tastes even better when you know the sources. Let’s be thankful.