A while ago I came across a documentary on BBC Four called “Chef vs Science”, which explored the science behind food and how we taste it – and explored whether pure science could create perfect taste. Part of the programme saw the presenter go to Europe’s only wasabi farm (in a secret location!)
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the wasabi paste you get in your sushi lunch is probably 1% actual wasabi. For one, it’s a pretty expensive plant that’s grown in very particular conditions and, like all vegetables, has a fairly short lifespan once harvested. But there are three farms run by The Wasabi Company in England – in Hampshire and Dorset – that grow actual wasabi plants. So, being a foodie and Japan blogger, I took a short trip to Hampshire.
My host for the morning was the very knowledgeable Nick, who showed me round what were former Victorian watercress beds – now the surprising location for the only European-grown wasabi plants. Traditionally, wasabi is grown in the Japanese mountains where there is an abundance of natural spring water flowing in the right amount and direction. The Wasabi Company have managed to replicate these conditions – with 500 litres of natural spring water being directed through their beds every minute at a constant temperature of 10 degrees. The sound of trickling water here is reminiscent of a tranquil Japanese garden and, in the winter, steam actually rises from the beds.
The wasabi plants have two years in the ground – and shade is just as important as water. The better the shade, the greener the plant. Yellow leaves mean the plant is just past its prime and, in spring, the plants will flower. Then you have to consider everything else a plant is exposed to – pests, disease and (because this is England) flooding. This means the plants need checking on every day, just as they would be on a normal farm. As you can see from the photos, the beds are arranged in neat rows and it will take three people one day to clear them.
When the plant is ready to be harvested, it’s wrenched from the ground just like any other vegetable. The leaves are edible (and the more you munch them, the more wasabi-esque they taste) but the real prize is in the rhizome or stem, which goes for £30 a piece. To release the flavour, the rhizome is cut separate from the rest of the plant then grated down from the top until you get a fine paste that looks very much like your takeaway sushi kind. But this is where the fun – and science – begins. The taste of freshly-grated wasabi goes through a 20 minute volatile chemical reaction where its taste changes over time. Grating the wasabi breaks it down to a molecular level – with taste peaking 5 minutes in.
It’s surprising how much flavour can change over such a short space of time – and the wasabi I kept dipping in to (for research purposes, of course) jumped from mild to hot to peppery to fiery and all over the place – but it was always delicious. Needless to say, it’s so much better than the lie we’re sold in supermarkets but not a million miles away.
So, why don’t we see rhizomes in any UK supermarkets or most restaurants? One obvious explanation is that it’s pretty expensive and only grown in three places in Europe, so isn’t exactly easy to get your hands on. Also, once harvested a rhizome needs to be consumed in three weeks, so having a huge stock in the same way you would have for biscuits just isn’t sensible. Most of The Wasabi Company’s clients are Michelin Star restaurants but it is possible to buy your own plant if you want to try growing your own. I was lucky enough to head home with my own plant, which apparently is best left in my bathroom for a year and given plenty of water…
So, how did we even get to a point of growing wasabi plants in England? The Wasabi Company has its roots in watercress farming since the 1850s but, in 2010, a visiting Japanese chef remarked that the only other crop he had seen growing in similar conditions was wasabi. This ‘planted the seed’ (pun intended) and a lot of research and trial and error took place until The Wasabi Company went to market in 2014. Initially, they were met with some scepticism but now have a successful operation exporting around Europe. Currently, they boast the title of the only European wasabi growers as their secret is yet to be cracked elsewhere!
Responding to growing demand, The Wasabi Company continues to expand its product range and has partnered with the 200 year-old family business Marusho and sells a range of produce on its online shop – from citrusy ponzu juices to miso. Unexpectedly, I got a fantastic gift box from Nick with a lot of their product range, so you can expect to see a lot of recipes popping up on the blog over the next few months.
My final question to Nick was “don’t you worry about wasabi thieves?” At £30 per plant, surely there’s a black market trade there somewhere or a need for wasabi guard dogs? Apparently not. After all, if you stumble across a wasabi farm you probably won’t know what it is and, even if you do try to flog it, there’s only one place in England that grows the plant….
My trip to a very English wasabi farm was a great escape from the city but also a very education experience. Clearly, we are a very enterprising country who appreciate the magic of food science!