If smoke gets in your eyes and horseradish up your nose, get over it, says Janet Wynne Evans – it's what makes Britain great, and not just once every four years
Before my late father-in-law's work took the family away from God's Own County, he allegedly grew a strain of horseradish so strong that it literally unblocked sinuses. Grating it up for the Sunday beef was, I'm told, the equivalent of simultaneously inhaling a prescription-strength decongestant and the fumes from a bowl of turbocharged Friar's Balsam.
Fresh horseradish is much easier to cultivate than to buy over the counter, so those of us without a garden, or the time and skill to tend one, have to get our kicks from jars. The best of the commercial sauces are competent if a little sweet and vinegary for my taste. I imagine they have to be so in the interests of shelf life, but they seem to lose vigour all too quickly once the seal is broken, and I discard more jars than I can finish.
After our summer of Olympic glory, what bliss to strike gold again by chancing upon the feisty root at a forward-thinking greengrocer's, for there is no comparison between a jar of creamed horseradish and a bowlful made from scratch. White and pure as the driven snow and buzzing gently on the palate, it delivers the exquisite kick that wakes up a steak, cuts like a rapier through oily fish and calls a humble beetroot salad to gastronomic action.
It's less brutal to the wine in your glass too, especially if you spike it with lemon juice instead of vinegar, and season it carefully with a controlled pinch of English mustard. It will continue to mature for three or four days in the fridge, but after that, it begins to lose its mojo. Revive it with a dash of Colman's, and you'll have Tewkesbury Mustard, an excellent sharpener for a cold beef sandwich.
Like its soulmate smoked eel, which is also tricky to source, fresh horseradish root can be frozen, once cleaned and peeled so it makes sense to have both in cryonic suspension, ready for the chic, but effortless starter below. Partner it with the gewürztraminer-like Three Choirs Stone Brook 2010 from the Vale of Gloucester (ref N-EN701, £7.25) for a royal flush of quintessentially home-produced ingredients.
Smokery salad with fresh horseradish cream. Serves 4
For the horseradish cream
- 200g smoked eel fillet, in four pieces
- 100g smoked lardons or diced streaky bacon
- A bunch of watercress, washed, dried and trimmed of leggy stalks
- 4-6" horseradish root, depending on thickness, scrubbed well and peeled
- A small tub of thick cream - you'll need about 3 tbsp and half-fat works!
- A pinch of English mustard powder
- Freshly squeezed lemon juice to taste
- Salt and freshly-ground white pepper
Grate the horseradish finely, avoiding the woody core. You should end up with a very generously heaped tablespoon of grated root. Reserve a teaspoon or so to adjust the final strength and combine the rest with the other ingredients, tasting as you go and tweaking if necessary. The mixture will gather momentum with infusion, so wait for an hour or so before adding more horseradish. If it's too strong, your eyes and nose should have issued an immediate warning, unless you are wisely wearing welding goggles, so redress the balance with more cream.
Heat a non-stick pan. Throw in the lardons and let them sizzle until just done. Drain on kitchen paper and discard any excess bacon fat, leaving a slight sheen on the pan surface. Add the eel fillets and heat through for a couple of minutes on each side. Arrange the fillets on four plates and scatter the lardons around, with tiny dollops of the horseradish sauce. Crown with the watercress leaves. Serve with brown or rye bread, thinly sliced and sparingly buttered, on which to heap a bit of everything. O, clouds, unfold! And, this being England's green and pleasant land, they probably will.