Hold the chilli: Horseradish is hot stuff

Scandinavian chefs love it and, increasingly, British diners can't get enough of the fiery and versatile root. Eat it freshly grated for maximum punch, says Sudi Pigott

For a nation often referred to as les rosbifs, we're surprisingly ambivalent about horseradish, rarely using it apart from serving it as a sidekick to a roast sirloin, and often then only in a puny dilute, pre-prepared jarred form. But horseradish has to be freshly grated to deliver its true oomph. Maybe this autumn – its main harvest started in mid-October – the potent charm and versatile uses of horseradish as the seasoning of the season (already long recognised by the Scandinavians and Russians) will be far better appreciated.

I've long been enamoured with horseradish. It is inextricably linked to overly-long Passover rituals conducted by my grandfather, whilst I amused myself by making extra helpings of the bitter herb sandwiched in matzah and discreetly scoffing them as I awaited dinner. A highlight of the Passover meal was always my Hungarian great-grandmother's homemade chrain, a "ketchup" of beetroot and horseradish to accompany the roast lamb. Chrain is on the verge of becoming fashionable, its vivid colour and punch extolled by Simon Hopkinson as the perfect accompaniment to modish-once-more brisket. (To make it, blend five beetroot cooked, peeled and cut in chunks, 175g peeled and freshly grated horseradish, a tablepoon of balsamic vinegar, two tablespoons of sugar and salt to taste.)

Horseradish served ethereally as horseradish snow by a very young René Redzepi at a dinner in London, long before he reinvented Nordic cuisine and Noma became famous, was also a seminal horseradish moment for me. I adored the fleeting sharpness that cut through the musk ox it accompanied, just like a harsh icy Nordic winter. If I had a Pacojet machine, I could now try out the snow for myself from Noma, the cookbook, made by mixing 15g cornflour with 90g milk, boiling, stirring in 500g buttermilk and 75g grated fresh horseradish, seasoning with lemon and salt. Though freezing in an icetray and forking into snow would work too. It would wow dinner-party guests served as René suggests with razor clams, mussels and dill or more simply with momentarily seared beef.

The long tapering dense white root has always been synonymous with roast meats. Even Dostoevsky mentions that Katerina Ivanvag in Crime and Punishment enjoys beef and horseradish. In Russia, horseradish has always been used to pickle cucumbers and tomatoes to keep fresh during winter and as pickling is an austerity trend, I'm tempted to use my stash of Le Parfait jars to make a hoard of sweet, crisp pickles. It's rumoured that Russian chefs are looking to bring new Russian cuisine (a lighter, bistronomy version of traditional dishes using newly thriving local artisan producers) to London, so expect boiled spiced pork or veal with horseradish and smetana.

Trine Hahnemann, Danish chef and food writer now based in London, swears by her horseradish and lime sauce (mixed with Greek yoghurt and crème fraiche, lemon juice and caster sugar) as the extra weapon that elevates her orange and lemon cured gravadlax to legendary status. Equally, the mini root-vegetable cakes made from grated beetroot and parsnips, almond, thyme, coriander and oats in her latest book Scandinavian Christmas together with her lemon horseradish cream (mixed with Greek yoghurt and crème fraîche to take a little of the heat, and lemon juice to give it acidity plus a dash of caster sugar) are on stand-by for when my entertaining bout kicks in to try and recreate some Danish "hygge", a term that encompasses cosiness, camaraderie and good food.

Now even British chefs seem to be giving horseradish a little bit more fashionable recognition. Mark Poynton of new Michelin-starred Alimentum in Cambridge admits to preferring horseradish to pepper as a seasoning. On his tasting menu (which he will be offering at his three-week tenure at Winter Garden at The Landmark in London in late-November) is smoked eel (a classic partner to horseradish), given a fresh makeover served with oak-chip smoked apple and English truffle (found under oak trees) and horseradish granita.

The zing of horseradish admirably cuts through the richness of other oily fish too, such as mackerel. Tony Fleming at Angler restaurant at London's glamorous new South Place hotel cures mackerel fillets for a mere 20 minutes in salt, sugar, lime and freshly grated horseradish (its fire comes from a substance called sinigrin, which releases volative oils by the action of enzymes only when it is cut and grated), then sears the fish merely to blacken the skin and serves with artichoke barigoule and fennel purée. It's a sophisticated yet ultra-healthy dish – horseradish has more vitamin C than lemons and is high in vitamin B and many minerals – and anyone who has cried their eyes out as they grated it will believe in its efficiency in sweating out colds.

According to J Sheekey's just-published fish bible, the restaurant's chef director Tim Hughes considers horseradish totally indispensable. A mix of freshly grated and creamed is the decisive ingredient for the tomato relish (plus a tin of chopped tomatoes, 150g tomato ketchup, 150ml white wine vinegar and a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, accompanying its lobster mayonnaise). Better still, there's a savoury of toast spread with horseradish butter and equally once-neglected cod's roe.

Though horseradish has a reputation as a hangover cure in a hot lemon drink, I'd recommend it as the ingredient sine qua non in the best Bloody Mary I've ever tasted, served up at gloriously eclectic Zetter Townhouse. It is made according to mixologist Tony Conigliario's recipe using fresh-horseradish-infused Polish rye vodka, a mixed pepper distillate, its home-made tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, celery salt, lemon juice and its own secret tomato mix.

The hottest secret of all right now, however, is where The English Wasabi company is growing the knobbly green rare rhizome known in the west as Japanese horseradish. Rumour has it that it is somewhere in Dorset. Fiery wasabi needs clean, flowing water for its root growth. All I can reveal is that the producers are one of the UK's top watercress-producing families and so have access to the optimum conditions. As Jon Old explains: "It is sawa, meaning flowing spring water, wasabi which is the purest, sweetest and has the most heat, which is at its peak of pungency and flavour about three minutes after grating. We are extremely excited that after three years research, experimentation and cultivation we are beginning to reap a good regular crop." Its arrival has been greeted ecstatically by some of the UK's leading chefs. Gary Jones, executive chef of Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons, sums it up as "bloody marvellous, a small miracle of pure taste and flavour", and uses it to add subtle yet unmistakable hit to beurre blanc sauces.

Steve Drake of Drakes Restaurant in Ripley, near Woking, received a sample of English wasabi with perfect timing shortly after returning from a Roux scholar study trip to Japan. "I'd been blown away by trying fresh wasabi grated using a shark shin stretched over a wooden paddle with sashimi of squid, salmon and tuna at Masayoshi Kazato's restaurant near Tokyo. The flavour was incredible and so different from the aggressive harsh heat of wasabi pastes (made with horseradish, mustard and salt). When I got back to the UK I was determined to use wasabi and thrilled to discover a local source. I grate it into a jerusalem artichoke purée that seems to lock the distinctive flavour while slightly mellowing the heat and serve together with a Cabernet Sauvignon gel, roasted icicle radishes alongside poached and roast venison saddle with plum sauce."

I've been fanatically using my precious rhizome, sent with its own muslin cloth to keep it damp and, thrillingly, a Japanese metal grater and bamboo brush. I confess I have got through a good-sized root in less than a week, serving it with tuna sashimi, as wasabi and lime butter on grilled turbo-brill, in mash and to accent french dressing for a salad, besides being grated on smoked salmon blinis for an impromptu snack.

Yet, as Brett Graham of The Ledbury says, it is hard to beat the perfect synergy of horseradish with beef, albeit pale green, sweet, clean English wasabi, grated at the table (diners often ask to grate their own) with short rib of ruby red beef with smoked onions and bone marrow. Just don't confine it to a Sunday treat.

Find English horseradish at Whole Foods Markets, Harrods, online at natoora.co.uk and good greengrocers. thewasabicompany.co.uk

Pickled horseradish cucumbers

Sterilise Le Parfait jars in boiling water.

Soak 40 small pickling cucumbers in iced water.

Combine 2 litres water, 450ml white wine vinegar, 280g caster sugar, salt and pickling spice (a mix of cinnamon, mustard seed, bay, allspice, pepper, mace, coriander etc). Stir to dissolve and bring to the boil.

Put a tablespoon of salt, a clove of peeled garlic and a couple of strips of freshly peeled and sliced horseradish (dipped in lemon juice to prevent discolouring) and a few sprigs of dill into each jar.

Slit the cucumbers to better absorb the brine.

Pack cucumbers tightly into jars and pour over brine to almost the top of the jars.

Put jars in sterilising water and re-boil, then leave to cool, ensure seal on the jars is tight.

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