ITS reputation as a feared pest capable of tunnelling through walls and roads has long preceded it.
But Japanese knotweed could appear on dinner plates across the country after a green-fingered chef at Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden turned it into a daring dessert . . . and is now in the running to be named Britain’s best contract cook.
Ben Harrison, head chef at RBGE’s Gateway Restaurant and Terrace Café, said he was “thrilled” to be short-listed after his coconut panna cotta and candied Japanese knotweed caught the eye of industry judges at prestigious trade publication FSM.
The 38-year-old, who will discover if he has won at a glittering awards bash in London on November 25, said: “I was just trying to do something different – we were given a carrier bag full of knotweed and asked to come up with something.
“People say it has a very interesting flavour and that they would never have imagined that’s what it could be used for.”
Based at the Botanics as head chef for four years, Mr Harrison has wowed customers and industry experts with a range of cutting-edge dishes based on fruit, veg and herbs grown in the grounds of the world-famous attraction.
Mr Harrison works for Sodexo Prestige who have run the catering at the Botanics since the Queen opened the new £15.7 million visitor centre at The John Hope Gateway.
And he said having top-class ingredients such as rainbow chard, rocket and purple sprouting broccoli available on his doorstep was a “unique opportunity” which had transformed his approach. “It’s so rare to have that – it’s a privilege and we are very lucky,” he said. “The difference is in the freshness. Sometimes we compare the food we get from our suppliers with what we get here and it’s night and day – it’s as fresh as it can ever be.
“The other advantage is in the health benefit in that it’s all organic – and it helps you with costs.”
Mr Harrison does not tend directly to his ingredients but does liaise closely with Botanics experts, who look after the produce and even help him write menus. The chef said the set-up was unlike any other he had experienced in nearly two decades of working with food at hotels and restaurants around the UK.
“It’s an amazing place,” he said. “We’ve based a lot of our menu on what we get from the garden and hopefully it will last for quite a while yet.
“The feedback we’ve been getting from customers so far is great.”
Mr Harrison’s success has been hailed by colleagues.
Fraser Sharp at RBGE, who put him forward for the award, said: “Over the past four years, Ben has built up a fantastic reputation for his innovation and dedication.
“He is passionate about using fresh, local and sustainable produce to create menus and offers that are genuinely popular with customers.”
1kg Japanese knotweed
1kg caster sugar, plus extra for rolling
0.5 litre water
100g stem ginger
2 star anise
2 whole oranges.
Trim and wash the Japanese knotweed and cut into 3 inch pieces and reserve to the fridge.
Peel and slice the ginger and peel the outer of the oranges into strips and squeeze the juice.
Place the sugar and water into a heavy bottomed pan over a low heat and reduce until sticky. Next, add the ginger, orange juice and zest and the star anise allow the flavours to infuse for 10min off the heat. Strain off all the ingredients from the stock and discard, place the stock back to the heat and simmer for 10min, then add the Japanese knotweed. Allow to cook until translucent, remove gently from the stock syrup and drain. Retain the stock syrup for later use.
When cool, roll the knotweed in the extra caster sugar, then place on to a cooling wire and place into a cool area and allow drying. Repeat this process up to six times until you have the desired finish.