As I slowly settle in to my new life here in France, I'm finding out about quite a lot of interesting local suppliers of the things that I want to eat, wear, sit on, or otherwise use. But I never thought that I'd find this: French natto!
I've written about natto here before of course, but in case you are new here, natto are cooked soy beans to which a bacilllus that grows on rice straw is added, then allowed to ferment (much like yogurt) until they develop a sticky substance on their surface. It's one of the most infamous "eww" foods around. Detractors claim that it not only looks offputting, but that it smells like old socks or worse. Not even all Japanese people like natto - the further west and south you go in the country, the less people seem to like it.
I am definitely in the natto-lover camp though. Besides being very nutritious, natto is also very cheap in Japan, so a bowl of natto and rice is something that a poor starving student could live on if needed for some time, perhaps with the occasional vegetable and fruit thrown in (into the diet, not the natto). However, here in Europe natto is not that cheap, so I've had to ration my intake for years. (When I was in Japan I had natto almost every other day to compensate.) I tried cooking my own soy beans and making my own natto, but it never turned out quite right...either it was not sticky-stringy enough, or developed a slightly unpleasant sour taste, or something.
So, imagine my surprise and excitement when I found out that there is a small company making natto right here in France. Not only in France, but here in the Provence! The company is called Natto du Dragon and they are located in the small village of Draguignan, in the Var region of Provence. We ordered a 3-pack to try it out. Each pack has 150 grams of sticky goodness. The label indicates that is it a guaranteed 'bio' product. I believe that it's sold mainly at bio or health food stores in France.
The beans have a slight white bloom, which is fine. When mixed up with some soy sauce, the beans developed a lot of satisfyingly sticky strings.
And the taste? Well, it's quite strong - not unpleasantly so, but much more assertive than most commercial natto is these days. It has a distinct cheesy taste, which reminded me of a local cheese called Banon, that is made in the village of Banon, not so far from where the natto is made. A Banon is traditionally aged wrapped in chestnut leaves, and gets more a more pungent with time. A 2-year old Banon is almost black and very smelly indeed, in a lovely way.
I would not be surprised if the bacteria that gives local cheeses their unique flavor has somehow found its way into the bacillus natto of the Natto du Dragon, turning it into a truly French natto. I love the mysterious ways in which bacteria and other things work in fermented foods.
Now that I have a local source for one of my favorite foods, I no longer have to ration myself so strictly. Already it seems more like home here.
Natto du Dragon ships to other European countries besides France too, so if you are curious about how a French natto tastes, give them a try!
Natto preparation notes
My favorite way to eat natto is to just add a bit of soy sauce or even salt to it, and mix well. To temper the strong smell and taste, try adding some finely chopped green onions to it. Another popular addition is some reconstituted mustard powder (or in other words, straight mustard, not Dijon style mustard or something). Wasabi can work too. Some people like to add a bit of dashi stock powder.
On a somber note
I actually wrote this up early last week, and was all ready to post it, when the terrible floods that you may have read about in the news happened. Draguignan, the viilage where Natto du Dragon is located, was the village that was the epicenter if you will of the floods. (some dramatic photos here.) I wanted to make sure if Natto du Dragon was okay before I posted this - and I'm happy to report that they are.