Wasabia Japonica: The Story of Europe’s First Fresh Wasabi Growing Company

At first glance the water pool looks like a shallow pond or tiny backwater lake. I step out of the car onto wet, shaded grass to look closer, and I see crystal clear water with plants floating in and around its circumference. My eyes are drawn to small mounds of pale brown, spurting silt underneath the surface. Bubbles of air rise to the surface, molehills of rising springs ejecting their clouds of gritty spray into the limpid water as silver trout glide silently by.

Tom Amery, the Managing Director of The Watercress Company, and James Harper, his Product Manager, are taking me on a short tour of their watercress fields and chalk spring landscape in a village near Dorchester in Dorset. All around us are floating carpets of tiny watercress plants in rectangular beds, little birds pecking at flies that dart and hover on the surface.

The constant temperature of the clean, alkaline and mineral rich spring water that rushes from the aquifer of the porous chalk geology along the River Frome and its tributaries provides the optimal growing conditions for watercress, a crop that has been grown on the Dorset and Hampshire borders since the 19th century, when string bunches were sent to Covent Garden market in moist wicker baskets on the Mid Hampshire Watercress Railways.

The British shopper’s appetite for watercress is now bigger than ever, and 25 acres of it, as well as other salad leaves, are grown here at Waddock Cross, 80 tonnes distributed to supermarkets, delicatessens, restaurants and food shops both at home and abroad from a brick bungalow headquarter office building, set off the side of the B3990 south of Tolpuddle. A million bags of salads are sold every week with their harvest sealed in air and wrapped in plastic: it is an industry that requires speed and careful handling to ensure freshness and to command the best prices.

The Watercress Company also owns farms in Florida {450 acres} and Spain {another 25 acres in Jerez}, where the mild winters with longer daylight hours enable the growth of greater volumes of plants when Britain is gripped by its colder, darker wintry slumber.

Eager to innovate, diverisfy and launch a new product, the team behind The Watercress Company looked to find a crop for which the topography, climate and conditions of this unique terroir could become a natural home, and after four years of research and study, Wasabia Japonica, the wasabi plant, was chosen.

We are now sitting in the offices of The Watercress Company, which is also home to the newly launched Wasabi Company, with a specimen of the plant in front of me, positioned tightly in a shallow glass bowl filled with clear water.

Approximately 50 cm tall, it is a handsome perennial with wide, emerald green leaves forming a dense canopy on long petioles that arch outwards from a gnarly, arching crown. The flowers are small, cross-star shaped and white, similar in structure to wild garlic in the genus allium.

Native to the shady, lush mountain river beds of Japan, it is very difficult to grow Wasabia Japonica from seed, because the flowers, and therefore seeds, produced are too few in numbers. When the wasabi rhizomes are harvested by hand, after two years of growth, they need replacing, which makes the cost of fresh wasabi high {100 grams sells for £30, or £10 for a small rhizome} and therefore it pushes the product into a more niche and specialist market of foodie enthusiasts and discerning gastronomes.

Wasabia Japonica has been cultivated in Japan since the tenth century, and the farmers involved in its production, much like producers of the finest prosciutto, the most delicate cheeses or the most prestigious wines, form impenetrable Masonic Lodge phalanxes through which foreigners and aspiring entrants to the field are unwelcome. Where there is profit there is privacy. As a result, I am not allowed to visit the actual beds where the plants are grown, nor am I privy to their exact location and habitat. It is all a deep, green, agricultural secret.

The Wasabi Company, the very first commercial grower of Wasabi in Europe,  has spent a long time researching, trialling and financing this new venture, and to reveal its innermost secrets so soon after its launch would be counter-productive.

What I can reveal, however, is that the “sawa” water wasabi rhizome, from which the highest quality fresh wasabi is obtained, is approximately 10 cm tall, light green and ivory on the outside. The plant is frost tolerant, and, in fact, because it lives in shallow water, its roots and crown are protected from extremes of temperature.

Just before eating, the rhizome is carefully peeled and its pistachio coloured flesh is grated in a circular motion with a finely graded, stainless steel grater to create a soft, aromatic paste. This is then edged away from the blade onto the plate with the use of a small bamboo brush.

The rhizome is available to order online, and arrives wrapped in a brown cardboard box, covered in wet muslin and plastic, with its own grater, brush and instructions. Once de-cling filmed, the wasabi should be stored with its protective cloth and a little water to mimic the semi-aquatic world from whence it came, refrigerated and used within two weeks. Its taste lends itself naturally to raw salmon carpaccio, boiled rice, noodles, soya sauce and fresh cream.

Real wasabi paste is light years away from the imposter that claims its name in the ersatz sachets or tube dispensers we see in Japanese sushi bars or on bento boxes sold in supermarkets. From snacks to tinctures, pastes and rubs, the food industry has succeeded in persuading a generation of consumers that the cheaper, easy to manufacture, coloured horseradish and mustard mixture disguised as wasabi is the real deal. Like turmeric is to saffron, cod’s roe is to caviar or Cava is to Champagne, the poor man’s alternative is not necessarily to be shunned, it is just not authentically Premier Cru.

Fresh wasabi is quite pungent on the palate, its hot, lachrymatory, mustardy notes hitting the upper reaches of the mouth just like horseradish, another related member of the brassica family. You have to stop eating the wasabi paste in order to regain your breath and overcome its nasal assault, but the sensation is pleasing, pure and clean, like eating a middle of the Scoville scale chilli. Unlike a chilli, however, the heat disappears almost immediately and the addictive allyl isothiocyanate compounds within its fiery ions will have you wanting more. Endorphins are released in your bloodstream, just like after eating a spicy curry, dark chocolate or ripe strawberries, and you feel uplifted.

Like other cruciferous vegetables in the brassica family, Wasabia Japonica contains isothiocyanates, which activate enzymes that help detoxify the liver, and interfere in the formation and metastasis of cancer cells. In addition, research has shown that wasabi compounds fight inflammation, prevent abnormal clot formations, reduce the risk of heart attacks and have anti-bacterial properties.

There is another part of this story that holds interest: the natural habitat of watercress and wasabi beds attracts a wide ranging biodiversity of wildlife, including insects, butterflies, moths and water voles. The company has also been responsible for creating 25 bat stations and introducing falcons onto the plantation, which are natural predators of aphids and pigeons, both unwanted pests.

From the beginning the Chairman of the company, Peter Old, Tom and James, knew that they needed to bring their new high-end venture to the attention of established and respected nutritionists, chefs {such as Raymond Blanc of Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire and Brett Graham of The Ledbury in London}, of television personalities such as James Wong of “Grow your own drugs” and “Countryfile” fame, as well as Japanese restaurants and enthusiasts of sushi and sashimi, the dishes most likely to be aligned with wasabi.

“Setting out our marketing strategy, we knew that the traditional, old world of print marketing was not sufficient. When we ran the watercress PR and marketing campaigns we implemented classic return on investment criteria, calculating frequency of purchase and penetration of the market. But wasabi is a totally different product with a different customer base. Watercress is an established ingredient and one of the top three salads chosen in the average supermarket salad aisle. With wasabi there needs an educational drive to tell new consumers its story and to show them how it is prepared and used,” Tom told me.

From completely different backgrounds, Tom and James bring to The Wasabi Company varying sets of skills that have enabled the company to launch its new venture. Thirty six year old Tom joined The Watercress Company in 1999 after studying Horticulture at Writtle College. He has worked on both the developmental as well as the environmental side of the business. Thirty-two year old James on the other hand, studied Zoology at Aberystwyth University, and was working at the nearby Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre, when he met Tom at a dinner party. The latter was looking to recruit a new Manager for the business, and his philosophy is to bring new blood, ideas and vision to the team, rather than recruiting solely from within the fresh produce industry.

There is no doubt that to reach the Facebook and Twitter generation new tactics are required from the fresh produce PR world. We have all seen campaigns to try to re-invigorate sales of cauliflowers, Brussel sprouts, beetroot and cabbage. The introduction of new, sophisticated, narrative-led products, such as savoury artisanal ice-creams, Kobe beef, single-estate chocolates and flower infused vinegars   to an ever-burgeoning class of inquisitive foodies on social media has also seen producers engaging, galvanising and mobilising food bloggers, respected writers and well-known chefs to act as product ambassadors and champions.

The Wasabi Company will therefore be looking to create recipe ideas, take part in food festivals, participate in nutritional food documentaries and channel the zeitgeist of quality and authenticity to appeal to affluent consumers who understand and value its core message. So far, interest has been shown from buyers as far afield as China, Dubai and Japan itself, although it is very early days and relationships and contacts are still being explored and cemented.

Crystal-ball gazers who try to predict new trends make a fortune nodding their research towards which new food and drink products we will be buying in the future. Millions are made and lost in the pursuit of new “superfoods” and the horticultural holy-grails, from new fruit hybrids to new flower varietals. Creating demand for a product is a complex and fortuitous business, particularly during challenging economic times, when shoppers are cutting back on everything beyond the bare and basic essentials of the weekly shopping basket. The fine dining market, street food venues, London’s food halls and private event caterers, however, are always on the look-out for new and innovative offerings to present to their clientele. Just as in wasabi’s native land, where premiums are paid for Wagyu cattle, bluefin tuna and dai ginjo sake, there are always high-end cooks and diners all over the world prepared to pay a little bit more for an uncompromisingly genuine gustatory experience. This is a food journey we will all be tracking with interest.

Further Information

The Wasabi Company: www.thewasabicompany.co.uk

Twitter: @WasabiGrowersUK

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