Hampshire Wasabi

HFF_15 logoFINALWhen someone mentions wasabi to you, what do you think of? If you’re like us, your experience of wasabi over the years may have been limited to the sachets of pallid, granular paste found in supermarket sushi packs or those dusty green wasabi peanuts that have the potential, if consumed irresponsibly, to make you feel like you’re engulfing your brain with fire directly via your nasal passage. Neither is particularly pleasant. What you probably wouldn’t think of, however, is a tranquil little corner of the Hampshire countryside, with rows of lush vegetation growing in natural spring water bubbling up from the ground…

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Yes, wasabi is grown in Hampshire. Who’d have thought? We were first introduced to the idea when, earlier this year, Winchester Distillery launched their Wasabi Vodka. Known for making spirits in Hampshire for the people of Hampshire, it came as a surprise to many that even the wasabi used in their distillation process came from a local farm. When this vodka was released, we promptly bought ourselves a bottle and spent an afternoon experimenting with Bloody Mary recipes until we found one that suited our palates (more on this another time…).

Having already familiarised ourselves with this warming liquid, we were delighted to be invited to visit Europe’s only commercial wasabi farm, where many local producers had gathered to demonstrate how they’ve been using the county’s best-kept-secret ingredient.

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Hidden under protective shade netting in a secret corner of Hampshire, lies row upon row of Wasabia Japonoica. The plant is a brassica (think cabbage, horseradish and mustard) and grows best in running water. In Japan it’s grown in three different locations: in mountain streams, in fresh spring water or in soil although the latter tastes different and is deemed to be lower quality. We’re a bit short on mountains in Hampshire but what we do have are aquifers. Naturally occurring water passes up through the gravel beds and then drains away meaning that no water pumps are required to grow the plants. There are no pesticides used either so this is a very “clean” production process.

Every part of the plant can be eaten. It flowers in spring and the blooms have a peppery taste. The leaves, fried with a bit of rock salt, are a bit like crispy seaweed with a brassica taste. But the part that most people will be interested in is the rhizome or stem of the wasabi, which is finely grated to give the pungent and powerful paste that we recognise. It’s only when the cells are broken and the paste oxidised that the flavours truly develop which is why wasabi is always a paste and reaches its peak flavour 5 to 15 minutes after grating.

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Winchester restaurateur, Miff Kayum, has led the way in using Hampshire wasabi at his Japanese restaurant, Kyoto Kitchen. His team has created the Hampshire Roll for its sushi menu, using Chalk Stream trout, freshly grated wasabi and cucumber all wrapped up in a wasabi leaf. The result is a deliciously fresh and punchy sushi roll.

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With its unique flavour and varying potency, wasabi is a versatile product that lends itself to many dishes. This has been demonstrated no more creatively than by local artisan chocolatiers, Chococo, who at the time of my visit, were testing two variants of their new wasabi chocolate: the same chocolate ganache filling made with wasabi, ginger and soy was encased in either dark chocolate or milk chocolate. It was surprising just how different the two chocolates were. The filling itself was complex with the soy and ginger coming through before the warmth of the wasabi in the finish. The dark chocolate made for a more ‘adult’ chocolate, accentuating the flavours of the soy and wasabi while the milk chocolate was lighter. To find out which one they ultimately picked and decided to sell, you’ll have to visit and try one for yourself!

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My visit to the Wasabi farm was a real eye-opener. I learnt that with quality wasabi it’s not about the fierceness of the heat but about the incredibly unique flavour. It’s really no wonder that this local “secret” ingredient has captured the imagination of local producers.

It is possible to buy wasabi shoots and grow your own but if, like us, you don’t have the space (or live on an aquifer), we’d recommend seeking out those local restaurants and producers who are using fresh Hampshire wasabi in their products.

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