GOCHANG, North Jeolla – This time of year in Gochang, North Jeolla, it’s easy to spot people with indigo-like stains on their fingers.It must be bokbunja-picking season.
The type of black raspberry is a big draw in the small county about a four-hour drive south of Seoul. These days it is packed with bokbunja pilgrims, who come to see the place that accounts for nearly half of Korea’s annual bokbunja output, or about 6,000 tons.
The wild dark berries are widely used in everything from sauces to liquor to jams. They even show up in cosmetic products.
The farming village of Guam, meaning “nine rocks” in Korean, located in Asan-myeon township has been busy preparing for an annual festival of bokbunja and watermelon that started yesterday.
Bokbunja and Taoist hermits
It takes about 10 minutes by car to get to Guam from the central town of Asan-myeon. Local legend has it that the village was a gathering place for Taoist hermits because of its beautiful scenery. Among the signs that support the legend are many huge rocks of distinctly unique shapes.
One rock looks like a horse saddle that may have been used by the hermits, while another resembles a small, foldable table.
Alongside the legend of the hermits is the tale of the origin of the bokbunja. An old married couple living on Mt. Sunwoon found wild, dark berries and brought them to their youngest son, who was ill. After eating the berries, the boy regained enough strength to overturn a chamber pot with his urine.
Unfortunate as it may be, that’s how the wild berries earned the name bokbunja: In Chinese characters, bok means “turning over,” bun means “chamber pot,” and ja means “a man.” For this reason, bokbunja is often said to be excellent for boosting stamina.
Improbable as the legend seems, the origin of the bokbunja name may not be groundless.
Gochang County officials say the berry was first cultivated somewhere around Mt. Sunwoon. A couple of restaurant owners near the mountain first started to make liquor with bokbunja back in the 1960s.
As the liquor was catching on with locals and outsiders alike, Gochang County encouraged farmers to cultivate the berries, which are red when maturing, and then turn bluish-black when they ripen.
Today, the berry is one of the most lucrative agricultural products of the region and Gochang has become synonymous with bokbunja.
“We earn more than 40 billion won ($34.8 million) with bokbunja every year, but it goes further than that if we add up additional revenues generated from sales of processed bokbunja products, such as bokbunja juice and bokbunja liquor,” said Park Pil-jae of the Gochang Agricultural Technology Center. A total of 120 billion won was generated by bokbunja and other bokbunja-related products last year.
Kim Gwang-sik, a 54-year-old farmer, says the high quality of Gochang bokbunja stems from its climate and terrain. Nutrient-rich yellow soil, or hwangto, and breezes from the Yellow Sea make the best bokbunja, he says.
“All bokbunja produced here are free of fertilizers and chemicals,” said Kim. “If you blend 10 ripe bokbunja berries with a cup of milk and drink it every day, nothing beats it.”
Bokbunja is said to clean the blood and be good for the kidneys. Since the berries contain high levels of estrogen, they are popular with women who plan to have a child or women who reach menopause.
Visitors to the bokbunja and watermelon festival will have an opportunity to do more than listen to local legends and economic statistics by picking some of the berries with their own hands. While few farmers open their bokbunja fields to outsiders, who often don’t know the proper way to pick and end up damaging the trees, there are still places where visitors can get their fingers stained.
At Banam, a village next to Guam, there is a greenhouse of about 2,645 square meters (28,470 square feet) where you can become a bokbunja picker for a day during the festival, which ends on Sunday. For more information about the festival, visit http://bokbunja.gochang.go.kr or call (063) 561-1987.
If you want to pick bokbunja on a smaller scale, contact the culture and tourism department of Gochang County: (063) 560-2456.
During the harvest season, direct purchase from farming villages is also available. But Bokbunja is quite expensive – the retail price of 10 kilograms (22 pounds) is between 150,000 won and 160,000 won.
Getting back to our roots
Gochang, with a population of about 60,000, is growing as an increasing number of people who wish to live off the land move there. Last year, a total of 1,012 newcomers arrived, about four percent of all Koreans who moved to rural areas. “About 1,500 people will settle here this year,” said Park, from the agricultural center.
A major reason for Gochang’s growing population is its undeveloped, rural character.
Unpaved old paths covered with hwangto are still found in Gochang and many walking trails provide a glimpse into the nature of the county. For example, a walking trail which starts at the Gochang Dolmen site, a Unesco World Heritage site, leads to a mud flat of the Yellow Sea.
Another walking trail, called Bokbunja and Pungcheon Eel – another famous local food – runs through a tranquil farming village. There are endless bokbunja trees, tobacco plants, rugged cliffs and the Incheon River, often dubbed the Pungcheon River, that stretches about 31 kilometers (19 miles).
The county says it is often the new arrivals who add new twists to Gochang’s agricultural products.
Park Jae-suk settled in Gochang seven years ago to pursue farming. She cultivates bokbunja and has a Web site and retail shop. After many trials and errors, she came up with a variety of recipes based on bokbunja as a way to attract more customers.
Two of them are tteokgalbi, a Korean style meat patty cooked with bokbunja juice, and bokbunja kalguksu, a clam noodle soup. Instead of ordinary kalguksu, with its creamy colors of noodles, bokbunja kalguksu is pink. These unique dishes are available at Park’s shop. For more information, call (063) 563-1756.
During the three days of the festival, a variety of activities are available. For instance, about 100 servings of hwachae, traditional Korean fruit punches, with watermelons will be served, along with other bokbunja-based snacks and foods, from rice cakes to chocolates.
Travel tip to Gochang
Gochang is well known for bokbunja, but there is much more to enjoy there.
One of the most famous regional foods is Pungcheon Eel. Pungcheon is the name of an array of channels in front of Mt. Sunwoon. When the Yellow Sea tide rises, the channels are flooded with seawater. The eels taken from the flooded channels are named after Pungcheon.
Pungcheon eels are grilled over charcoal. Unlike other types of eels, often enjoyed by Koreans when they want a summertime stamina boost, the texture of the Pungcheon is more chewy and less greasy. Of the many Pungcheon eel restaurants near Mt. Sunwoon, Gangnaru Eel restaurant offers grilled eels in a different way. Instead of using charcoal, the restaurant uses dried corn kernels, which gives the eels a roasted corn smell.
Another dish from the restaurant is eel marinated in – you guessed it – bokbunja juice. For more information about the restaurant, call (063) 561-5592.
For more information about the foods and sights of Gochang, visit http://culture.gochang.go.kr.
By Na Won-jeong, Sung So-young [email@example.com]