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From Wasabi to Caviar: England Is Producing Foods Once Only Sourced Around the Globe

A new specialty foods movement is blossoming in the UK.

The Wasabi Company Jon Old Courtesy of The Wasabi Company

The Wasabi Company

Jon Old’s family farm has been producing watercress in Dorset and Hampshire since the 1850s, but it was a chance observation from a visiting chef—that the growing beds for the notoriously fussy plant looked similar to the wasabi farms of Japan—that changed his life.

“In its natural environment, it’s spoilt,” Old says. “It grows at the top of mountains, with clean water that’s nutrient-rich and full of oxygen and shaded by trees on the side of the stream.” His land, which sits on an aquifer, mimics wasabi’s natural environs almost exactly, and so he developed a zesty new side to his business.

Since then, Old has spent several years tending to different cultivars of the finicky plant. Of the 40 or so varieties of wasabi, the most precious is Mazuma, which has an extra-slow growth that confers a density and complexity of flavor. It’s this variety which his chef-customers, including Gordon Ramsay and Raymond Blanc, snap up whenever it becomes available, at around $320 per kilogram. He also sells to home cooks, who use it beyond the confines of Japanese cooking: It works well with beef or blue cheese or even, Old says, stirred into a panna cotta. Sadly, FDA regulations prevent him from shipping the rhizome itself Stateside (strangely, only wasabi grown in Japan, Taiwan and Canada is allowed in), but his wasabi powder and other wasabi-infused products, like mayonnaise and mustard, are just a click away from your pantry.

Exmoor Caviar

Exmoor Caviar

Exmoor caviar, seasoned with Cornish sea salt.  Courtesy of Lawrence & Co.

For almost seven centuries, by royal edict, the British monarch requisitioned all sturgeon and sturgeon roe for personal use—which is to say Kenneth Benning had some unlikely paperwork to complete before starting his business, petitioning Buckingham Palace for permission to start the first commercial caviar firm in the UK. (The Queen not only assented but became a customer.) Ten years later, the entrepreneur operates a 30,000-strong shoal of Siberian sturgeon living in a converted ornamental fish farm, with a millstream fed by fresh spring water from the River Mole.

Benning and his team forgo the harsh process, common to many hatcheries, of milking fish for their eggs. Instead, fish are humanely killed and the roe reaped by hand, with tweezers used to nix any remaining fatty tissue. (For sustainability reasons, the company uses every part of the fish save the head and tail, also selling smoked fish and roe-fat oil, which is used in cosmetics.) The caviar is then salted with Cornish sea salt and aged for two months ahead of delivery. Past happy customers include not just Her Majesty but the current prime minister.

Benning can ship any packages under 125 grams (around 4.5 oz.) to the US, but if you happen to be in Harrods—one of Exmoor’s top retailers—pick up a kilo or more before the season ends. By next month, the water will be too warm for harvesting.

Tregothnan Tea

Tregothnan Tea

Mixing tea blends at Tregothnan Tea.  Courtesy of Andrew Parish

It was supposedly the palate of Charles Grey, a picky prime minister from the 1800s and the second Earl Grey, that gave the world his namesake bergamot-oil-spiked black tea. It’s fitting, therefore, that one of his descendants should oversee the UK’s first homegrown tea plantation, in Tregothnan, Cornwall, part of the aristocratic Boscawen family’s ancestral home. The estate’s gardeners have cultivated camellias on the grounds for centuries but only began harvesting the plant’s youngest shoots 15 years ago, in an attempt to make an all-British cuppa.

Former head gardener and current managing director of trading Jonathon Jones brewed up the idea after realizing that the camellia-friendly conditions at Tregothnan—a cool climate with a warm winter and consistent humidity—mimic those of Darjeeling, the premier tea- producing region of India. Jones didn’t succeed straightaway (the first batch was ruined when wind blew down the test bushes), but he persevered; now the garden has 100 acres of tea-bearing camellias, with another 50 acres in the works.

Tregothnan produces a range of blends and will soon launch a number of single-garden teas that aim to showcase the estate’s varied terroir. Whichever blend you choose, heed the advice of marketing manager Bella Percy-Hughes, who recommends cold-brewing the leaves overnight rather than scalding them with hot water; a slow steep in the fridge better emphasizes the leaves’ naturally smooth, sweet finish.

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