Monday, December 03, 2007

Hot Roots.

December 3 …

Some random “on this day” browsing turned up a piece of apparently un-food-related trivia: today is the anniversary of the admission of Illinois as the 21st state in 1818. On the principle that there is food a degree or three away in every story, I set out on an Illinois food-fact finding mission.

It is difficult to get the head around, but Illinois (a small part of it around Collinsville) grows almost all of the horseradish (Cochlearia armoracia) used in the United States. Thousands and thousands of tons of it, and none is exported. What on earth is it all used for? I mean, I like horseradish, but a very little goes a very long way. And what does it look like – thousands of acres of horseradish as high as a billy-goat’s eye (or a buffalo’s eye? Or a mouse’s eye)?

Horseradish belongs to the Brassica family of vegetables, so is related to the cabbage, although its more recogniseable cousins are mustard and the ‘ordinary’ radish. It is not the same as wasabi (which I am sure is not neon-green in its natural state, is it?). It most certainly has nothing to do with horses. The linguistic theory is that the name came about because German migrants were responsible for bringin their beloved meerrettich into the country, and ‘meer’ was mistaken to mean ‘mare’ and ‘mare’ is a horse. It is a good enough theory until a better one comes along. The ‘radish’ part of the name is more obvious, because it shares the same pungency – the same nose-assaulting sensation (from the ‘mustard oil’) that is quite different from the mouth-assaulting capsaicin in the chilli pepper, and which gives it one of its old names – stingnose.

Horseradish has been known and cultivated since ancient times, and was valued for its medicinal properties. Samuel Pepys drank horseradish ale for medicinal reasons, being advised it “for the stone”, which he had had unpleasant experience of. The sixteenth century English herbalist John Gerard provides its first use in English in 1596, and gives the Germans the credit for its culinary “for sauce to eate fish with and such like meates as we do mustarde”.

The first recipe I can find that uses horseradish is from Eliza Acton’s classic Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845), although I am sure it was in use long before this time. The most common use in England is still to jazz up roast beef.

Excellent Horseradish Sauce.
(To serve hot or cold with roast beef.)
Wash, and wipe a stick of young horseradish, grate it as small as possible on a fine greater, then with two ounces (or a couple of large tablespoonful) of it, mix a small teaspoonful of salt, and four tablespoonsful of good cream, stir in briskly and by degrees, three dessertspoonsful of vinegar, one of which should be Chili vinegar when the horseradish is mild. To heat the sauce, put it into a small and delicately clean saucepan, hold it over, but do not place it upon the fire, and stir it without intermission until it is near the point of simmering, but do not allow it to boil, or it will curdle instantly.
Horseradish pulp, 2 ozs. (or, 2 large tablespoonsful) ; salt, 1 teaspoonful; good cream, 4 tablespoonsful; vinegar, 3 dessertspoonsful (of which one should be Chili when the root is mild).
Obs.—Common English salad-mixture is often added to the grated horseradish when the sauce is to be served cold.

Tomorrow’s Story …

A Patient Diet.

Quotation for the Day …

This stuff tastes awful; I could have made a fortune selling it in my health-food store.
Woody Allen, 'Sleeper'

1 comment:

M said...

I'm no linguist but I always understood the 'horse' part of common names was to indicate that the substance was coarse and more suited to animal feed than human sustenance. Hence Horse chestnuts, not nearly as good as the sweet sort, horse beans (a sort of broad bean used for fattening livestock) and of course the Horse Radish, much coarser and more stinging than an ordinary culinary variety.

Quite how the German fits into this I don't know, but it seems as if there is some possibility of a connection there.