Rob Baan is the planet’s greatest micro-vegetable innovator who believes his creations could help the developing world avoid heart disease and cancer. Chefs, caterers and cocktail specialists from all around the world look to him for his botanical discoveries and innovations.
Baan has been the catalyst for many food trends over the years, including micro herbs and pea shoots. Koppert Cress, which he took over in 2002, grows more than 60 weird and wonderful ingredients: Sechuan Buttons, for example; a yellow flower bud that numbs the tongue, or BlinQ Blossom; a plant whose sparkling leaves appear encrusted with crystals. He is indeed the Willy Wonka of edible plants!
Inside vast greenhouses the energy-saving LED lamps illuminate his crops. 200 employees cultivate the cresses on an epic scale, with Koppert Cress extending over 10 hectares of plants. They are grown without soil, rooting into moist squares made from cellulose then sold as a living product, by the punnet. Baan’s commercial empire also includes partnerships with seed farms in the Gobi Desert and extra greenhouses in the US, Japan and Turkey.
30 per cent of cancers, he claims, are caused by “incorrect food”. Baan wants developing countries to learn from our mistakes. “The first country I worked in was England, I was shocked by the food.” A keen cook from the age of six, Baan has always been obsessed by food. During work trips in the early 1970s, he brought back samples of paprika from Eastern Europe. In Korea in the 1980s, he was treated to a banquet with 100 dishes, many prepared with wild mountain vegetables – flavours and textures unknown in the West. “Korean food was really the eye-opener.”
Years later, the most intriguing of these plants became Koppert Cress products, often sourced from the wild then trialled and tested in the Netherlands. The company was founded in 1987. In those days, it grew only four micro cresses and Baan saw the potential in expanding the range, first joining as a director then buying the company outright in 2002.
Some of his discoveries have proved trickier than others to bring to market. In China, Baan had noticed children selling bundles of leaves by the roadside. These were tree seedlings with an unusual, nutty taste – but trees take much longer to produce seed, which is also harder to collect. To solve the problem, Koppert Cress now helps fund schools in the area. In exchange, pupils forage for the tree seeds for a fortnight every year, and Koppert gets its precious seedlings. Other discoveries were made closer to home. Cressabi, a peppery plant similar to wasabi, was found growing as a weed near his greenhouses.
A short drive away, in Rotterdam, chef François Geurds, another client, is a master of this art of flavour intensification. The holder of two Michelin stars, he previously worked as sous chef for Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck. His recent creations include lobster with a verjuice emulsion, smoked butter and Salty Fingers – a Koppert Cress product with a subtle saline flavour.
At his headquarters, Baan is investing €7m this year to upgrade greenhouse capacity. And he is grabbing every opportunity to evangelise the nutritional benefits of cresses and their potential role in modern healthcare. Tests have shown, for example, that one seedling of his BroccoCress contains the same amount of sulforaphane, a so-called “anti-cancer” compound, as a whole head of broccoli.