It has been quite a journey for business partners Tom Amery and Nick Russell as the only UK growers of the wasabi vegetable. Lauren Dean visits Dorset to find out more about the research and development inspired by Japanese culture.
Miseducation of unfamiliar produce is a hurdle Tom Amery and Nick Russell, of The Wasabi Company (TWC), England, have spent the worse half of three years trying to overcome.
Their business, which is the only one in the UK to specialise in the Asian vegetable wasabi, spent its initial few years working in top secret before introducing top London chefs to new ways on how to use and eat the vegetable, which meant slashing the traditional chef stereotype of cutting it into radish-like thin slices. Wasabi may well be part of the horseradish family, but the way it should be eaten could not be more different, as managing director Tom explains.
“One of the things about wasabi is the miseducation and arrogance in chefs. They think they know everything.
“Trying to teach a chef that doesn’t know about wasabi but trying to pretend he does know about wasabi is a difficult way to sell.”
Looking back at the duo’s first attempt at selling the rhizome to one of Raymond Blanc’s top London restaurants, the pair relive how his executive chef picked up a knife and started peeling it.
“Oh God,” Tom laughs. “He cut a really thin slice even though the grater was right next to him.
“He started chewing it saying it was good wasabi but it was an absolute disaster because that wasn’t the way to do it.
“So it was a case of: ‘Okay well I have this new technique, why don’t you try it this way?’. It literally blew his head off.
“That was the moment I knew it was going to be quite a hard sell.”
Although The Wasabi Company was not Tom and Nick’s initial venture, a slow-down in its parent company The Watercress Company in the previous 10 or so years prompted a need for a change in direction.
Watercress has been historically grown in the Dorset and Hampshire region since the 1880s because of the area’s natural spring and chalk aquafers.
It was originally grown exclusively for the local community but the revolutionary introduction of railways gave The Watercress Company opportunity to expand.
But a change in tradition for watercress farmers in the UK which saw a move to farm winter crops overseas, coupled with a dwindling in demand for natural succession, meant the land was forced into dereliction from the mid-1980s right the way through to the late 90s.
It was only around 2007 when Tom became the companies managing director change was on the horizon.
Tom says: “At that point we had to change the business. We had to modernise.
“What we have now is a totally different business to what we were looking at for about eight years. It was quite old-fashioned, it wasn’t really moving and there was no innovation.
“So we thought let’s try growing something different.”
Fast forward through a trial of Lebanese cucumbers, Habanero chillies, the Dorset Naga chilli and baby aubergines, and the team had failed to find the niche product it was looking for.
“At that time in about 2007/08 we started selling powdered watercress to an American company,” says Tom. “It was buying powdered watercress for its health benefits and they were desperate to put it into pills.
“The guy kept phoning me up asking for powdered wasabi but we had no idea what it was.”
It was only around that time that Japanese food was beginning to scratch the surface in the UK but two additional mentions of wasabi – one from a chef in Spain and the other to co-founder Jon Old – left the company thinking it could be the way to go.
“We got back and phoned up every Asian and Japanese agent there was for fresh fruit and vegetables and said we wanted to buy a stick of wasabi – we had no idea what it is,” adds Tom.
“They said we had no chance of getting it, and if it ever did come up, it was terrible, awful quality, very rare and overpriced.
“All these things were just adding up and I was thinking it was going to be brilliant.”
With permission from the chairman, the company branched off with a couple of plants to experiment with and, of course, code names and a secret team.
The Watercress Company was rebranded to match its new sister company The Wasabi Company.
“We kept it under wraps for about two or three years and pretty much by the time we had some rhizomes to go with we didn’t really know what to do with them,” Tom says.
“So we went to London with this ice box covered in fake grass and walked into every Japanese restaurant we could find.
“We didn’t tell them we were coming, we just walked in, showed them the wasabi and left our number, just to see what would happen.
“We thought that everybody would go crazy, that they’d love it. But we got kicked out of places, we got accepted in places, and then other places just didn’t know what to say.”
Nick, production and operations manager, who grew up on a wildflower farm, adds: “You know, I think we still get the same response.
“Even from then to now you go into a Michelin star Japanese restaurant and they will either be open arms or closed doors. It’s one or another.
“But having chefs interested in wasabi is great for watercress. It is a great partnership.”
The company had to quickly change its mind on a decision to not give away free samples, which they now say was key to its success.
Tom says: “It was all about the education and the opportunity for people to try it.”
But it was not the traditional Japanese route that led The Wasabi Company to where it is now.
The Japanese are so secretive about the crop the team were forced to use trial and error and, despite a pamphlet with minor details and photographs, the plan to simply copy and paste introduced too many problems.
Tom says: “The Japanese have soft water, we have hard water. They have different type of stones.
Nick adds: “They have more sulphuric soil. It’s a younger land mass.”
Now in its 11th year, The Wasabi Company has moved from strength to strength, but not without its challenges.
The extreme heat this year has been tricky, with the wasabi crop preferring the cold springs and shade of its natural habitat found in Japan.
The plant usually lives in rivers which are covered by a canopy of trees – something the farm has had to naturally recreate.
Fortunately for the business, leaf sales were able to continue this year thanks to the shelter tents.
The natural springs flood into the beds with the cold water evaporating as a cooling agent, with the beds kept at between 10 and 12degC all-year-round.
But, of course, other challenges have been aplenty. When asked about barriers within the business, Tom says: “How long have you got? It’s farming.
“You can grow one plant in two different locations and it can give you two different problems.”
For young crops, aphid pests are an issue and if they attack at too early a stage, the rest is history.
When the plant gets a rhizome it becomes more hardy and in extreme weather events it relies on its own nutrients. The natural water barrier also helps prevent snails and slugs. But the best thing to do is to treat them with care, weeding little and often.
Nick says: “Wasabi is one of those plants that kind of sulks. It has behavioural problems.
“So you can never really tell what you are going to get until you have harvested. There is a pretty rigorous quality control throughout the entire process.
“It is a real skill. It is just something we have developed over time and it’ll definitely still catch us out, either through the quality control or through the farming.
“It is always going to be surprising us I think.”
Tom adds: “But it is so cool. Plants are amazing. They are way smarter than we think.”
Harvest is every two years – usually within the next four months – before heading to processing in the Dorset offices where The Watercress Company is based.
The Wasabi Company supplies directly not just into Japanese food restaurants, but also to French, English and Icelandic outlets – with offcuts being used to make wasabi powders.
With such a unique selling point, the duo have plans to expand to another four hectares (10 acres) in the next year or two to keep up with local demand for British produce within the UK and across Europe.
So far – because many retailers can’t appreciate the quality and price of the produce – the company is not sourcing any retailers but have just launched their own brand wasabi label with mayonnaise, mustard, soy sauce and jam.
Tom says: “One day when the country is ready we would be keen to have wasabi retailed. But the benefit of online orders means the farm has no waste – it simply harvests enough to fulfil the demand.”
Customers can also buy their own wasabia japonica plant, with 100 per cent of the plant edible, including its leaves, leaf stems and flowers.
Nick says: “As consumers realise their green radish they are getting in their sushi boxes isn’t wasabi, they’ll become more conscientious and want the real product.
“We are going to have to upscale production because there isn’t enough in the world to swap out all of that green radish with fresh wasabi at the moment.”