Dear Readers, there is a positive explosion of horseradish in the cemetery at the moment. I associate this plant with the over-grazed common land of Hackney Downs, back when I was a child: rugged ponies used to be tethered there (invariably piebald I seem to remember) and the turf was nibbled down to the roots. All that survived was great clumps of this stuff, and it seemed to me odd that something named after a horse seemed to be the only thing they wouldn’t eat.
I was therefore pleased to learn that the name probably has nothing to do with horses at all. In German, the plant is called ‘meerrettich’ (sea radish) and it’s thought that the English thought that it was called mare radish. From there, it was only a short jump to horseradish. Plus, calling anything ‘horse’ apparently used to mean that it was coarse and uncivilised, so maybe this also had something to do with the naming of this most uncompliant plant.
The plant is a member of the Brassicaceae or cabbage family, and has been grown for over 2000 years, largely as a medicinal plant – its pungent root has been used in salves for joint pain since 1500 B.C. It was also said, like many eye-watering herbs, to be useful as an aphrodisiac. Sadly, unlike the prickly lettuce that I mentioned a few weeks ago, it doesn’t seem to have a priapic God to accompany the legend, but I do find it interesting that cabbage relatives, surely the most unromantic of plants in terms of their wind-producing aftereffects, have historically been used as a kind of sulphurous love-potion. Tastes certainly do change.
Horseradish was also said to be a diuretic (and was hence used extensively for dropsy), a vermifuge (for expelling intestinal worms) and was said to be extremely useful for treating coughs – maybe something that could come in handy what with Covid and all. A slice of horseradish root in milk is said to improve the complexion, and if combined with lemon juice it can remove freckles, though why anyone would want to get rid of those delightful attributes I have no idea.
According to my Alien Plants book (by Clive Stace and Michael Crawley), horseradish is unusual in being mostly sterile (it almost never sets seed), with all the plants we see coming from the rhizomes. Many of the plants that appear alongside roadsides are the result of people throwing out unwanted plants from their gardens. Why then, I wonder, is this one particular grave in St Pancras and Islington (pictured above) absolutely covered in horseradish? The world is full of mysteries, to be sure. All theories gladly considered.
Of course, most of us know of horseradish in association with roast beef, although from the 1600s on in the UK it was also eaten with oysters. Country inns used to grow it so that they could harvest the root and grate it on the spot, which is undoubtedly the most eye-watering way to eat it. The English in particular, having no chillies or black pepper to call their own, seem to like the pungency of ingredients like English mustard and horseradish, and are rarely happy unless their eyes are watering and their nasal passages on fire.
These days, horseradish seems to have become popular with smoked fish (maybe something of the Scandinavian influence has rubbed off), and we also regularly eat it in Austria, especially with the boiled meat dish Tafelspitz. Personally, I find it a tricky ingredient to pair with other flavours, but do let me know what you think. Interestingly, horseradish is one of the ingredients of the Jewish Seder plate, and an American food writer mentions that she used to eat ‘Hillel sandwiches’ (named for the famous Rabbi Hillel) which consisted of matzoh, horseradish and charoset (a very sweet, sticky mixture of apples and nuts with sweet wine). She came up with a recipe for apple tart with walnut-horseradish frangipane, which looks delicious, and could possibly work if the balance is right. The recipe is here, and there’s a photo below to encourage you.
A quick look at Vickery’s Folk Flora pulls up a few other interesting uses for horseradish. In the Fens, one way of determining the sex of an unborn baby was for the prospective parents to sleep with a piece of horseradish under each of their pillows. If the husband’s horseradish turned black before his wife’s, the baby would be a boy, and vice versa.
Horseradish leaves (which look superficially like those of dock) can be used to treat nettle stings.
My favourite comment, though, was this:
‘My now ex-husband and I lived in a Steiner community near Middlesbrough for about a year. During that time he was very depressed and often angry. He was advised by a senior member of the community to wrap horseradish leaves on his feet to draw the heat from his head. It didn’t work and we divorced six months later‘.
This conjures up such a picture of domestic bliss, don’t you think?
And finally, a poem. During the 2012 Olympics (and how long ago does that seem now?) the Scottish Poetry Library collaborated with BBC Radio to publish a poem by every country involved in the competition. Song 352 was from Ukrainian poet Oleh Lysesha, and I love the image of homely horseradish and his always hospitable hut. Horseradish is thought to come originally from the grasslands of Eastern Europe, and so I imagine it being woven into the culinary memories of people from all over this part of the world.
When you need to warm yourself,
When you are hungry to share a word,
When you crave a bread crumb,
Don’t go to the tall trees —
You’ll not be understood there, though
Their architecture achieves cosmic perfection,
Transparent smoke winds from their chimneys..
Don’t go near those skyscrapers —
From the one-thousandth floor
They might toss snowy embers on your head..
If you need warmth
It’s better to go to the snow-bound garden.
In the farthest corner you’ll find
The lonely hut of the horseradish..
Yes, it’s here, the poor hut of a horseradish..
Is there a light on inside? — Yes, he’s always at home..
Knock at the door of horseradish..
Knock on the door of his hut..
Knock, he will let you in..