Farming wasabi has been a part of my life for nearly five years now. What started with an off-hand remark from a chef visiting one of our watercress farms quickly turned into a roller coaster adventure, and now we’re the only commercial growers of fresh wasabi in Europe! Although we’d been looking for new crops, and had even trialled a few, nothing could have prepared us for where wasabi would take us and how fast.
They say every day is different on a farm and a wasabi farm is no exception. I play a role in growing, distributing and selling our wasabi so on any given day I could be on the farm with the growers, meeting with distribution to review the latest harvest or visiting a chef in his restaurant to show him fresh wasabi for the first time. The growers and distribution all start early so we normally meet with little in the way of breakfast inside us and stop later once the day is planned and all staff operations organised.
We harvest three times a week and I help decide where we pull the wasabi from depending on preferences of the client who has ordered. One chef might like his wasabi strong tasting and dark green so he’d need small ones from bed 5, another will prefer a sweeter flavour so he would need a different variety from bed 1. The Japanese tend to like a large rhizome to impress diners when grated at the sushi counter so we will patiently walk the beds and feel down to the base of the plant until we can grip a whole handful of rhizome sticking up from the base of the plant.
The plants we pull have been growing for 18-24months and during that time they have gone through several cycles of winter and summer dormancy and spring and autumn growth. They are open to the elements, pests and disease so it is always a rewarding sight to see healthy rhizomes emerge. Once safely back at wasabi HQ the plant will be carefully pulled apart and rhizomes cleaned up to be shipped either direct to top kitchens or to our distributor partners all over Europe.
When we began initial research into wasabi, my experience of sushi was limited to say the least. Producing and working with fresh wasabi has opened doors to some of the world’s finest kitchens! I’ve travelled from London to Barcelona, Madrid and Paris to meet chefs at their request. Chefs like to hear how the wasabi is grown and many are very knowledgeable about the history of wasabi and how it is grown in different areas of Japan. One chef recounted how a retiring Samurai warrior would be gifted a wasabi plantation on retirement to thank him for years of faithful service such was the reverence for the plant. Others have given me valuable insights into what to look for in a wasabi rhizome and how to taste different characteristics in the flavour and pungency.
Not all chefs are quite as welcoming however, one Japanese chef wanted nothing to do with English wasabi and was offended that we had encroached on his birthright, I was ejected from the kitchen by his underlings as he tapped a meat cleaver on a wooden chopping block shouting what sounded very much like Japanese expletives.
Of course chefs like to taste the wasabi with the finest sashimi they have and they may choose one variety of wasabi over another based on its particular paring with a particular cut of fish. Fresh wasabi is very versatile however and when I roll into home after whatever the day has delivered on the fresh wasabi frontline I’ll always be looking for a new dish to be enlivened by fresh wasabi. Smoked salmon is an obvious one and freshly grated and mixed with butter to serve with steak is another staple. My latest discovery is wasabi and blue cheese, a great pairing and one I’m claiming as my own!