Wasabi is being grown for the first time ever in the UK by one of our top watercress-producing families based in Dorset. It's notoriously difficult to grow and takes 2 years until it is ready for harvest. If you haven't tried fresh Wasabi before it has a uniquely sweet pungent taste and fiery heat which really wakes up the taste buds and sinuses. It stimulates the nasal passages rather than the tongue and the heat is more akin to horseradish or mustard than chilli.
The Wasabi Company use traditional Japanese methods and grow Sawa Wasabi – the purest, sweetest, hottest and healthiest variety. Fresh Wasabi is unlike the wasabi green paste in tubes that you see sold in shops – these usually contain a substitute which is a mix of horseradish, mustard and green food colouring with as little as only 5% of the real wasabi root.
Sawa Wasabi is native to mountainous river valleys of Japan and thrives along the cool and shady banks of stream beds. Although Wasabi has been eaten in Japan for thousands of years by the 16th century it was restricted to the Japanese ruling class. It wasn't until the rise in production of sushi that Wasabi used became more widely available. It is the preferred flavouring for sushi and was prized for its ability to counteract food poisoning.
This British grown Wasabi has been a boon for chefs up and down the UK with Gary Jones, executive chef of Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons, summing it up as "bloody marvellous, a small miracle of pure taste and flavour." You can buy varying sizes of Wasabi rhizomes (roots), specialist graters and bamboo brush brushes from The Wasabi Company's website. They have handy guides on how much you will need and recipe suggestions – which go far beyond sushi.
I'm not surprised Wasabi has become such a big hit in the UK given our love of horseradish and mustard. Horseradish was used as a medicinal herb in 13th century Britain but became popular in the 1600s. By the end of the 17th century horseradish was the standard accompaniment for beef and oysters among all Englishmen. The English, in fact, grew the pungent root at inns and coach stations, to make cordials to revive exhausted travellers (the Germans still make schnapps out of horseradish root). It's not a member of the Wasabi family but is a distant relative as they both belong to the Brassicaceae group which includes cabbages – and mustard.
We don't live far from Tewkesbury which is famous for its Tewkesbury Mustard which is made from mustard and horseradish (and sometimes local cider!) – a tradition that dates back centuries. It was mentioned in William Shakespeare's play Henry IV and King Henry VIII was presented with Tewkesbury Mustard Balls covered in gold leaf when he visited the town in 1535. The Tewkesbury Mustard Company is the only mustard-maker in Tewkesbury and continues this tradition – they were featured on Ainsley Harriet's The Great British Food Revival on BBC 2 this week! We eat it regularly at home and if you haven't tried it yet please do, it's delicious.
I use horseradish in Smoked Mackerel Pâté (see here for recipe) but this year I'm making Smoked Haddock Pâté for Christmas Eve snacks using our local Tewkesbury Mustard.
Smoked Haddock Pâté
2 or 3 big fillets of un-dyed smoked haddock (cooked)
300 ml double cream
2 boiled eggs (chopped up small)
1 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
juice of 1 lemon
3 tsp Tewkesbury Mustard
I tend to poach the smoked haddock in a pan with a knob of butter and just enough milk to cover the fish. Flake the cooked smoked haddock into a blender/liquidiser, discarding the skin and any stray bones. Add the liquid from the pan that the fish was poached in and the boiled eggs, double cream, lemon juice and Tewkesbury Mustard to the blender. Pulse until roughly minced. Deposit into a bowl and stir in the freshly cracked black pepper, put into individual ramekins, sprinkle with cress and serve.