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Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013

U.K. wasabi farm first in Europe, hot


LONDON — A British farm has become the first place in Europe to successfully grow and sell the native Japanese wasabi plant, as European chefs increasingly use it in a wide range of dishes.

News photo
Hot to go: Wasabi Company of Dorset, England, is the first firm in Europe able to grow the herb. WASABI COMPANY/KYODO

A farm in the southwestern English county of Dorset began growing wasabi about three years ago and says the plant is now being "snapped up" by chefs across Europe since going on sale in July.

Wasabi is native to Japan and is part of the brassica family that includes horseradish and mustard. It has a pungent taste, akin to horseradish, and is traditionally served with sashimi and sushi.

Jon Old, project manager at the Wasabi Company, decided to cultivate the plant due to the growing popularity of Japanese food in Britain and the trend for top chefs to use grated wasabi in sauces for fish and meat, ice cream and chocolates.

He is confident this is the first commercial wasabi venture in Europe since another firm unsuccessfully attempted to grow the plant in Scotland. Wasabi is already cultivated outside Asia and can be found in the United States and New Zealand.

The British wasabi is grown in gravel beds with natural spring water flowing on top. The company has also created a shaded environment, similar to conditions in Japan where wasabi is found alongside mountain streams.

But Old declines to go into detail about the techniques employed in case other farms are considering entering the wasabi-growing business.

When establishing the farm Old attempted to contact Japanese wasabi farmers for advice but found that they were not forthcoming.

"I don't think the Japanese are terribly keen to have other people growing wasabi, as they are facing competition from growers in Thailand and South Korea," he said.

Old sells the wasabi plant's pale green rhizome — the underwater rootlike stem bearing both roots and shoots — to clients that include high-class restaurants, hotels and gourmets.

One of his first customers was celebrated chef Raymond Blanc, who was amazed to hear there was a supply of homegrown wasabi. He uses it in beurre blanc, a butter-based sauce.

Chef Steve Drakes was first introduced to wasabi in Japan and was happy to find that he had a homegrown supply.

"When I got back to Britain, I was determined to use wasabi and thrilled to discover a local source," Drakes said. "I grate it into a Jerusalem artichoke puree which seems to lock in the distinctive flavor while slightly mellowing the heat."

The wasabi is priced at £30 ($48) per 100 grams and is even proving popular with amateur chefs. Wasabi now features on cooking websites in Britain and is recommended for grating into mashed potatoes and hamburgers and added to vinaigrettes.

The Dorset farm has a long history of growing watercress but was keen to diversify into new markets, hence the decision to cultivate wasabi.

Old said much of the wasabi consumed by people in Japanese restaurants is in the form of powders and pastes that actually contain little of the real plant and instead have coloring, flavoring and mustard.

And he has had limited success in selling to Japanese restaurants in Britain.

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