Being told that it was impossible to grow wasabi in the UK, only made Jon Old even more determined. He has now become the only commercial grower of fresh wasabi in Europe with clients ranging from Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quatre Saison and over one hundred English and Japanese restaurants. Not only that, he has set up a network of distributors around Europe including Sweden, France, Spain, Norway, Switzerland and Italy. PBUK caught up with him to find out more.
It is a remarkable achievement – and one which has been achieved in just six years. The Wasabi Company is a sister company to
The Watercress Company which has been growing watercress on their Dorset and Hampshire farms since the 1850’s, was searching for an alternative crop to grow that would be a new challenge. That was six years ago, and now The Wasabi Company is charming European chefs with its product grown in England’s dark and damp conditions, ideal for cultivating wasabi.
“It was watercress that led us to wasabi. A chef visiting one of our watercress farms in May 2010 remarked how the only other crop he had seen growing in similar conditions was wasabi in Japan’, Old tells PBUK.
Intrigued, Old and his team began to investigate. They discovered that there were many similarities between the type of environmental conditions needed for watercress and wasabi. Japanese wild wasabi grows beside streams and enjoys the benefits of nutrient rich water with high levels of oxygen. Temperatures are mild and tall trees provide summer shade. Cultivated wasabi is grown in carefully controlled conditions that mimic the wild conditions.
For many years, The Watercress Company has utilized gravel beds over chalk soils through which waters rise from underground artesian springs. These waters are naturally rich in minerals and nutrients and are perfect for growing watercress. Their long heritage and expertise provided the skills essential for potentially growing wasabi.
There was space available at one of the smaller farms in the group. Being told constantly that it was impossible to achieve only strengthened their determination to succeed.
“Wasabi played to our experience and our location. We had the resources” Old adds.
Experimentation quickly began, without ever visiting Japan to see the product being grown there. It was also a product that offered considerable scope to develop a new business niche as fresh wasabi is highly prized by chefs and prices are high. For Old and his team, the challenge was to successfully grow wasabi within the English climate, and then to develop a market. This meant convincing chefs that the quality of the fresh wasabi they were growing was high enough to match imported Japanese wasabi. Not an easy challenge.
There are two types of wasabi: Sawa wasabi grown in flowing water, and soil based Oka wasabi used in food processing. The company’s long experience in growing high quality watercress, made the choice of Sawa wasabi inevitable.
Some abandoned watercress beds were planted with wasabi and a process of trial and error began. Optimum conditions for successful wasabi growing requires the right balance of sun, shade and water flow at different times of the year. For the best quality wasabi, the water needs to be free from the use of pesticides and a perfect growing environment.
“We did wonder at times if we would succeed as there were times when it was a real challenge. You could see some plants in a field were not happy, while others were. Trying to work out answers was hard. A lot of it came down to control of the flowing waters. The faith of an adventurous chairman kept us going.
“It has been a steep learning curve and we are still given plenty of surprises. Each year we see something different and any mistakes take a long time to put right with a two year growth curve. Harvesting a fully mature plant is always an event as it is only when you pull the whole plant you can see what you have yielded.
“Our wasabi is grown by hand over a minimum of 18 months. Every time we re-plant, the gravel beds need to be leveled and replenished with clean gravel. During the growing period, water flow needs to be carefully controlled daily, beds covered with shade net and uncovered depending on the season and light intensity. The wasabi is harvested by hand and each rhizome needs to be cleaned and carefully prepared to grace the very best kitchens in Europe. All this makes wasabi costly to produce.”
Being able to grow wasabi using flowing water enables Old to produce the highest quality produce. This is known as Sawa wasabi and is said to be the most nutritious, with the best flavour and the most expensive.
The first commercial crop was in 2012. Until this point, their attempts to grow wasabi commercially had been kept secret. Even the location of the sites was not disclosed to anyone. With harvesting now possible, they began to spread the word focusing initially on twitter, a new website and word of mouth. They also went out to visit chefs.
“The first chef we visited was Raymond Blanc. He said how fantastic it was, and his reaction gave us the confidence to visit others, “ adds Old.
Hardest of all to convince were Japanese chefs, who had for years imported wasabi direct from Japan. They did not believe it was possible to grow high quality wasabi in Europe or that it could meet the quality of Japanese wasabi. Patience was needed and a long term commitment to the crop.
“Over time, and by holding visits to the farm where they could see it growing in flowing water, we convinced them. To successfully grow it, we had had to replicate the natural conditions that it grows within Japan.
“We held a day when we invited lots of chefs down to the farm and had a local chef create dishes containing the wasabi. Then they went into the fields and saw how the wasabi was growing. We dug some wasabi up in front of them, cleaned it correctly in the flowing water then grated some for eating fresh from the field. They were convinced.”
Business has grown steadily and has expanded beyond the realm of traditional Japanese cuisine. The company now supplies many top chefs including Raymond Blanc. The quality of the produce has even attracted plaudits from UK-based Japanese chefs. Distributors of The Wasabi Company products on the Continent now bring their chefs to visit the farm.
“At the moment we sell out all our produce. We don’t just sell to Japanese chefs, they account for only about 50 percent of the customers. A lot of UK chefs are now using it in ways that are far removed from Japanese cuisine. Raymond Blanc makes a wasabi beurre blanc for example. Then there are chefs like Mark Hicks who didn’t use it before because he would only use products grown in the UK. As soon as home grown wasabi was made available, he started to use it.”
Traditionally wasabi is served freshly grated with sushi and sashimi. As a result of The Wasabi Company’s work, many UK chefs are encountering it for the first time. They have sought innovative ways to incorporate it into their cuisine in many different ways recognizing its interesting texture, flavour and nutritional basis. Top chefs now use fresh wasabi to flavour meat and fish, puddings and soups, as well as in the creation of sauces and foams.
Fresh wasabi is not an easy plant to grow especially if aiming at the highest quality as it requires optimum conditions. It is not a bog plant, and will rot if left in standing water. Although wasabi can be grown in soil (known as Oka wasabi), it is of lower quality and usually used for processing. Soil based wasabi is more prone to disease.
By focusing on growing fresh Sawa wasabi, Old has been able to develop a much wider range of markets for the produce. This is a plant where there is no wastage. Every part of the plant can be eaten. The delicately tasting white flowers are said to be a gourmets delight in spring, the swollen stems are crunchy with a radish/spring onion type flavour and the heart shaped leaves can be stir fried, sauté or boiled; as well as being eaten raw in salads.
Fresh wasabi has a very distinctive taste, reaching its hottest temperatures about five minutes after grating, after which the temperature reduces slowly.
“Wasabi is a living changing thing. Wasabi is a volatile compound, if you take a slice it has no flavour. Break the slice or grate it and it releases the compounds. You have fifteen minutes to eat it and after that the flavour disappears. This is why horse radish is added to wasabi compounds. Our blended wasabi powder has 20 percent wasabi, the highest level of any wasabi powder. It is ideal for a store cupboard as it provides a quality product for use even when the fresh product is not available.”
Customer demand has led to further expansion of the product range. Immediately after launching the fresh produce onto the market, the company was inundated with requests from grow-your-own enthusiasts who wanted to try it out themselves. Plants are now for sale and the company also commissioned a recipe book.
The website also contains a range of wasabi products, two of which have been created specially for the business. One is a blended wasabi powder which contains freeze dried rhizome powder to provide the genuine flavour and pungency of the wasabi root, while the other is Wasabi mustard.
To produce this mustard, the company teamed up with Fox Gourmet to create the unusual mixture. The website also offers the opportunity to buy specially imported Japanese wasabi graters and brushes to take off all the remaining wasabi from the grater so that every scrap can be used. There are also linked products like Dorset Black Garlic, a traditional Japanese Togarashi Shichimi spice mix and a special range of Marusho Japanese vinegars and ponzu sauces.
Until now, the Marusho brand had not been available in the UK. When The Wasabi Company encountered these products during a visit to a Continental client, they quickly recognized that the brand would be a perfect accompaniment to watercress and wasabi in the UK. Finding them impossible to source in the UK, Old talked to the family owned company in Japan and discovered they were eager to broaden their market and enter the UK. The result was a natural link between the two companies allowing the products to be imported and offered direct to UK chefs and consumers.
“There is no one else in the UK doing it. I have heard of some small farms trying to do it in Belgium, Germany and Holland,” adds Old.
While accepting that eventually someone else will succeed in establishing a wasabi growing facility in Europe, Old believes it will take a lot of time for such competition to arise and so he is focused on innovation for the future and widening the product range in the year to come.