Last winter, I met farmer David Turton of the Wasabi Company just outside of Winchester. This area has been famous for watercress – which has similar growing requirements to Japanese horseradish, known as wasabi, the small pea-green mound next to the salmon-pink pickled ginger when you order sushi. The Wasabi company has moved from watercress farming onto wasabi growing. The difference between horseradish and wasabi is thus: wasabi is smaller, grown more slowly, while tasting fresher and greener with stronger chlorophyll notes, plus the ‘burn’ only lasts a few minutes. Often wasabi is fake: western horseradish dyed green.
In addition to the roots, you can eat the young leaves and flowers. The Wasabi Company have produced condiments such as wasabi mustard and mayonnaise. I’ve made a mustard-based vinaigrette using the former product, pronounced the best dressing they’ve ever had by guests.
Keen gardeners can try to grow it at home by planting the tubers (also sold by same company): the trick is to keep it very wet with good drainage.
David Turton is softly spoken with a shy smile. He has an unusual background- his dad hailing from Yorkshire, a lecturer in the sciences, while mum is from Nigeria, a family of cattle nomads.
“Got my farming blood from her.” David chuckles.
Farming isn’t a career that outsiders normally come into? I ask.
“It does happen. Once it gets under your skin, you get the bug. I started farming as a toddler. I followed my Nigerian grandad around, cattle farming. I grew up in both in Yorkshire and Nigeria.”
He picks up a root, eyeing it critically:
“This one has too much bulges on it, it’s not smooth. I’m gonna have to clean it up outside. It’s like a tree. The bulges mean a lot of water therefore vigorous growth. The little nodules are part of the growth pattern. The growing periods can be aged by the ridges, like rings on a tree.”
David is the farm manager, not the owner.
“It is hard to have your own land. Not only the cost of the land but also the machines. All this gravel is brought in, the plants, the infrastructure, we’ve been lucky to have the backing of the watercress company. “
“Try picking some. Put your hand around the base of it. Feel around that now. Tug gently. There you go, that’s English wasabi!”
“We have 40 thousand plants and we harvest plants twice or three times a year, depends on the year. “
What’s the planting cycle?
“It takes 18 to 20 months to grow. we are constantly harvesting and constantly planting although we have about two big planting periods from October/November then spring time.”
Do you use it much at home? In your cooking?
“Yes we use it. My wife uses it, she’s an adventurous cook.”
“See how the water runs, quick moving natural spring water from under the ground. You can drink that.”
I drink from the pipe, it’s clear and fresh.
David adds: ” There are lots of minerals. The plants are happy growing in it as the water is particularly pure around here. The water cycle takes 40 years: it’s the rain, filters through, and comes up through the ground. “
Culinary uses for wasabi include:
- Using the young leaves for salad.
- The flowers for garnishes.
- Grating the root to add to sauces, or mustard, mayonnaise or gyoza dumplings.
- Using the root to add to soy sauce to make ponzu, a delicious Japanese dipping sauce.
- As a palate cleanser, to eat between pieces of sushi or sashimi.