Horseradish: A Condiment Rooted in Tradition

Sit down, gentlemen, and fall to, with a good hearty appetite; the fat, the lean, the gravy, the horseradish as you like it – don’t spare it.  — William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1848)

Originating in the warmer climes of western Asia, horseradish has since become a favorite condiment of the decidedly cooler climes of Central and Northern Europe, where it is cherished for its peppy, pungent flavor. The 1901 edition of the South Australia Journal of Agriculture reports that the zesty root grows “on a considerable scale in various parts of Bohemia,” favoring  “a deep, loose, strong soil, with plenty of moisture,” which “is considered the most suitable.”

Once horseradish finds suitable soil, it grows with abandon, sometimes colonizing entire gardens. During the September harvest a long-bladed mattock or spade is used to pry the tenacious roots from the ground. Once harvested, the horseradish enjoys a remarkably long shelf life; restaurateurs have been known to store roots in moist sand for months in order to obviate the need for frequent re-provisioning.

The horseradish has throughout history been highly regarded. Apollo learned from the Delphic oracle that it was worth its weight in gold, and Pliny the Elder recommended it for its medicinal qualities. In his 1858 book Soil Culture J.H. Walden considers horseradish “a healthy condiment, especially in the spring of the year,” which “with a little vinegar … may be eaten with any food you choose.”

And horseradish’s virtues are as much cosmetic as they are alimentary. When “steeped in vinegar for two weeks,” Walden writes, “it is said effectually to remove freckles from the face.”

Whether you use this versatile root to spice up your refection or to spruce up your complexion is entirely a matter of personal preference. But should you intend the former, try this recipe for horseradish dressing from The Rumford Complete Cook Book (1908).

Horseradish Dressing

1 cup heavy cream.
1 tablespoon grated or evaporated horseradish.
2 tablespoons lemon juice.
Salt and paprica

Beat the cream till quite thick and then add the horseradish finely grated. If evaporated horseradish is used, pour over it  a tablespoon of cold water and allow it to be absorbed before adding to the whipped cream. Put in the lemon juice slowly, stirring all the time; season to taste, and serve very cold. This dressing is especially good with tomatoes.

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