Viv Micklefield visits Europe's first wasabi farm
PUBLISHED: 17:01 27 May 2014
Hampshire's long been at the centre of the British watercress industry and now, thanks to some local ingenuity and the miracle grow spring waters flowing through our countryside, another green revolution is underway. Viv Micklefield digs deeper on a visit to Europe's first wasabi farm
“The thing about wasabi is that it’s not all about the heat, there’s a sweetness to it too,” says Tom Amery, as we don wellingtons for what’s about to become a step into unknown territory. He should know. As the man who’s managed to successfully grow one of Japan’s most prized culinary ingredients, in rural Hampshire, Tom’s lived and breathed this exotic plant for the past five years. And only now, is he ready to reveal some of the secrets behind a most covert operation.
Wasabi, or Japanese green horseradish as it’s sometimes known, has been eaten for centuries. Yet although it’s found wild alongside cool mountain streams, wasabi has not been easy to grow commercially outside of its native country. So, it might seem a risky strategy for Tom, who is MD of one of Alresford’s main watercress and baby leaf crop producers, to have taken-up the challenge.
As he explains, back in 2009 not even Japanese food suppliers in London sold fresh wasabi and it was a gap in the market which got his horticultural and business brain excited. However, for Tom’s team this meant going back to basics. “We all knew that wasabi was a high value product, but we didn’t know exactly how it grew. So, we developed our own propagation system and that was the difficult part. The seed is very hard to handle, it needs to be kept wet at all times, and it can easily rot.
“Because wasabi has two spurts of growth each year, first in spring and then again in the autumn, the rhizome (the plant’s edible swollen stem) gives it strength to grow multiple times over two to three winters. Then it’s harvested. Depending on how you grow it, and the variety, you can either produce one very large tuber or plants with multiple rhizomes. They have different flavours too and it’s often quite subtle.”
Listening to Tom, he sounds like a sommelier talking about a fine wine. In fact, forget the more familiar wasabi paste found on our supermarket shelves, which conjures-up an eye watering pungency and sends the uninitiated gasping for water. As he points out, what you’re actually likely to be eating is traditional horseradish with mustard powder and colouring added. There’s no comparison with fresh, ready-to-use wasabi which is naturally pale green and has a ‘clean’ heat that doesn’t linger.
It’s taken much trial and error, with the loss of tens of thousands of plants along the way. But the perseverance of Tom and, especially, production manager Sean Ede has certainly paid-off. Having driven for several miles, we’re now standing beneath what looks like a gigantic mosquito net, our feet in up to half a boot’s depth of gently flowing water, called Sawa in Japanese. Because despite being on the other side of the world, tapping into Hampshire’s crystal clear, mineral rich chalk streams, recreates the ideal growing conditions.
“Wasabi will take low temperatures but it’s about the consistency of temperature,” says Tom. “What we find is that by growing it in local spring waters, which remain at a constant 10 degrees provided the water’s not flowing too far or fast through the farm from the source, this can be managed. It’s very complicated though and you’ve got other challenges like maintaining the nutrition levels in the water, and trying to keep pests out – the aphids are first in, they like the clean environment.”
Every so often shards of light pierce our protective curtain, a legacy of the winter storms that swept this part of the county. According to Tom, these rips in the netting could, if left unrepaired, prove catastrophic to the shade-loving wasabi. Not only can direct sunlight cause the water lily like leaves to wilt, hampering the plant’s development, the netting also deters assaults from the resident pheasants and rooks eager to take a munch.
Surveying the gravel lined beds the size of, perhaps, two football pitches, he estimates there’s an astonishing £50,000 worth of wasabi in this one area: “Provided the plants do what they’re supposed to do!” Small wonder then that for the first three years of the growing trials it was total lock-down; the project given a code name, and just half a dozen people allowed access to this previously disused watercress farm.
Having achieved their first sales in 2012, there’s now three hectares devoted to growing wasabi, which planted by rotation, allows for weekly harvests and currently produces up to 35,000 mature plants annually.
So who’s buying fresh wasabi? “We export 60 per cent, Tom confirms. “France is our biggest market and we also have customers in Denmark, Russia and Spain. But the UK is catching up, with a 30 per cent increase in sales last year.”
Heston Blumenthal and Raymond Blanc are amongst the chefs who’ve added it to their menus. And locally, Matthew Tomkinson at Beaulieu’s Montagu Arms is a convert. Matthew says: “Fresh is a different world to paste, the flavour is so much more complex and whilst the heat is still there it diminishes quicker and is more aromatic. The fact that it is grown down the road is a bonus, and I really admire the entrepreneurial spirit.
“We have used it in chilled soups in the summer and replaced horseradish in certain dishes with it. Our guests love it and are fascinated by the story and the fact that it is a local product.”
Tom though is not one to rest on his laurels. While fresh is still best in his view, and especially when it’s grated over a Sunday roast, there’s more wasabi wizardry at work. This includes experimenting with producing wasabi oil and turning the plant’s leaves, which are often eaten raw or fried, into dried ‘sprinkles’ for extra crunch in rice dishes or sushi.
“There will be a processed product within the next two years,” Tom says with conviction. “We’ve never been to Japan, and instead have tried to master growing only the best wasabi ourselves.” Judging by their success so far, it appears to be mission accomplished.
Try Hampshire’s fresh wasabi for yourself, it can be bought directly from thewasabicompany.co.uk
Eat your greens
Like watercress, fresh wasabi produces isothiocynates when its cell walls are broken down (by grating in this case), releasing the tell-tale heat. Low in cholesterol and sodium, it contains vitamins C and B6, calcium, magnesium, potassium and manganese, and is a source of dietary fibre.