At last, the soba journey is over.
The farm where I’m staying is small, so most of the work is done by hand rather than using machinery. Normally a combine is used to cut and separate the soba grains from the stems, but we’re doing each step using manual equipment, some of which is has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. I will outline the process below.
First we cut the soba stems using a hand held sickle. As I mentioned before, this involves a lot of bending over to cut the stems, then gathering them in big piles. Because the soba isn’t planted very densely, this turns into a lengthy process. It took us a full day to harvest a small field.
Next we separate the grain from the stem, using a senbakogi. The literal translation is something like “a thousand teeth for separating grains”. Basically it’s a wooden board with large metal teeth like a comb – each tooth is roughly a foot long. You pick up a bunch of stems and pull them through the metal teeth – if all goes well, the grains come off and you’re left with just the stems.
Next, you have a pile of buckwheat grains, but they are mixed in with bits of stem, grass, stones, etc. So now you need to sift them through a metal grate to remove as much of the debris as possible.
Finally, you run the remaining grains through a toumi or grain separator or winnower, to remove any remaining bits of grass, stems and broken husks. The machine consists of a large wheel which spins and pushes the grains through an opening. The motion of the wheels causes the lighter bits to fly over a divider and out of one side of the machine, while the heavier grains fall through the bottom into a bucket. A bit hard to explain, but the video below should do a better job.
All in all, the entire process took a full day for what might be 5 pounds or so of grains.