We are sent a postcode with directions to the farm as we get near. The instructions take us through two metal gates and down a mud track with trees hugging the road either side.
There are no signs and no real clues that we are headed in the right direction, that is until the trees’ leave the track and in front of us are various mesh covered wooden structures. These structures are about six feet tall, they’re surrounded by wild flowers and vegetation, and carefully protect a very precious crop.
The crop that is growing underneath the mesh is wasabi. It’s the only farm of its kind in Europe and the plants are looked after by Nick Russell. He pops his head out from one of the tunnels and with a big smile on his face calls us over. Nick has been with the company from the beginning; he was brought in to develop and manage the farm which was set up by ‘The Watercress Company’. Nick says, “We were given the idea of Wasabi by a chef who came to visit the watercress farm. He said the only thing he’d seen growing like this was wasabi.” At the time the current directors Tom Amery and Jon Old where looking to trial new products so this seemed like a perfect opportunity and crop to try.
In this part of Hampshire, nutrient rich spring water comes up from about thirty to forty metres below ground and flows all the way to Dorset. It’s the perfect geography for growing watercress and now wasabi. The water forces its way up into the gravel growing beds, which allows Nick to grow the wasabi as it is, in the mountain streams of its native habitat in Japan. Nick says, “We essentially borrow the water, it rises from the springs, the plants take what they need and then it works its way back to the river systems with nothing added.”
“It’s great selling to chefs at the top of their game and only want the best produce because it means we have to be at the top of ours.”
At first, the market was extremely sceptical of a wasabi grown out of Asia. However, the comparable taste and the ability to deliver it so fresh meant that very soon they were an established player in the wasabi market. Traditionally breaking into the wasabi market was a deadly game. Old Japanese shoguns where given wasabi farms for long service and achievement. So there was an era when the majority of wasabi farms where owned by warlords. Nick says, “They would fight for market share and I mean actually fight, people would die over wasabi.” Thankfully nowadays it is a much more civilised market place and ‘The Wasabi Company’ delivers all over Europe to a variety of customers including a large number of Michelin-starred restaurants. Nick says, “It’s great selling to chefs at the top of their game and only want the best produce because it means we have to be at the top of ours.”
Bringing a product to market that hadn’t been commercially done before in Europe could have been risky. But without knowing it The Watercress Company had created the perfect growing environment for wasabi. There are no pesticides or fertilisers, no noise or mechanised machinery needed. The plants just take their nutrients from the quiet, constant flow of soft trickling water and the shades protect them from the sunlight above. This part of the world is relaxing, the atmosphere is calm, the air feels fresh and as many chefs will agree, it seems to be the perfect place outside of Japan to grow amazing wasabi.