The taste of success - selling precious wasabi to the Japanese
Published 01/06/2016 | 12:06
It is less a case of selling coals to Newcastle than selling the vegetable wasabi to the Japanese.
A British company is growing the traditional Japanese condiment in Hampshire and - such is its quality - to some of the top Japanese restaurants both in the UK and abroad.
The exact location of The Wasabi Company remains secret to protect the precious crop, which is gram for gram the most expensive vegetable in the world.
The farm supplies, among others, the two Michelin-starred Umu Japanese restaurant in London with fresh wasabi twice a week, and exports to France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands.
The company started off as a watercress farm in Dorset and Hampshire, where calcium-rich water bubbles up via artesian springs from underground aquifers, and farmers have created gravel beds over the chalk to anchor the plants.
But a visiting chef remarked that the only crop he had seen grown in this way was wasabi in Japan, and the idea was born.
Wasabi grows best in clean, nutrient-rich running water, as in Japan, and now in England.
The vegetable is experiencing a surge in demand as traditional growers in Japan scale back because of the high labour costs involved in its production.
Jon Old, who manages the wasabi side of the business, said: "The initial response from Japanese chefs was not terribly welcoming. There was definitely the response that it couldn't taste good if it wasn't from Japan.
"But we've won over some of those restaurants now."
He said the company was growing wasabi as fast as it could - a crop takes 18 months to reach maturity - but is selling out at the moment.
"I had a guy call from a yacht wanting three kilos by the end of the week. We just can't do it."
The company runs a store from its website, advising customers that they have probably never eaten the vegetable fresh, and most sold in supermarkets and with sushi packs contains only around 5% actual wasabi.
Mr Old said: "Immediately after launching wasabi sales we received hundreds of requests for wasabi plants. The British love to grow unusual things.
"Growing your own wasabi means you can enjoy picking flowers, leaves and stems to eat while you wait for the rhizomes to develop."