18 April 2008

Why You Just Can't Buy Good Horseradish

Tomorrow evening sees the start of Pesach (Passover.)  The time when Jews1 the world over remember the liberation of their ancestors2 from a life of slavery in Egypt.  It is primarily a happy festival, but, intermingled with the happiness of liberation from slavery3, we remember the suffering and hardship, too, and one of the traditions is that we eat bitter herbs to remember the bitter times and tears -- even the tears of the ordinary Egyptians who had to endure the Ten Plagues brought down on them as a result of their political leaders' refusal to negotiate a good faith, mutually satisfactory settlement.

Prime amongst the Bitter Herbs is Horseradish -- "Chrain" in Yiddish ("ch" as in "loch".)  Or perhaps that only happens to Jewish descendants of the European diaspora.

For most people, there are only really two ways to lay hands on Chrain in any shape manner or form: Either you buy ready-made Chrain, stained purpley-pink, and tasting about like crunchy cotton-wool, or you buy some Horseradish roots, and suffer tears, agony and pain shredding it up really, really small, adding vinegar, a bit of salt pepper and maybe a touch of sugar, and making your own.

Either way, every year, I hear the same complaint from my father and his brother:  "You Just Can't Get Decent Chrain Anymore.  It's Just Not The Way Chrain Used To Taste! Weak and Pathetic, I Call It."

And they're right!7

Even home-made from store-bought roots, its just Not As Strong.  And finally I've worked out why.

By an amazing coincidence, one of the farmers in the near neighbourhood grows Horseradish, on what we can only properly term "Commercial Scale".  Last year I bumped into him at the local store, his pickup piled high with bushel-sacks of Horseradish -- merely a sample, he assured me, for the food processors to test for quality.  Each year he ships out tonnes and tonnes of Horseradish.  My guess is that he probably represents the country's entire Horseradish supply.

He doesn't make a fortune selling Horseradish.  Like too many farmers everywhere, he barely scrapes by.  I strongly suspect that, like everybody else who has ever grown Horseradish -- anywhere -- he grows it every year simply because, well... he grew it last year.  You see, you can never get all the roots out of the ground.  They spread in mass profusion, snap at so much as a glance, and the tiniest piece comes up as next year's crown.  No wonder Comfrey holds no fears for me!

A few days ago I dug up my Horseradish roots.  Grown from supermarket-bought crowns a few years ago, they have Migrated.  Now they infest pathways and Real Veggie beds, and generally make a Bloody Nuisance6 of themselves.  Got some fine roots out, though, and saved the crowns for planting for next year.  My Plan is to fill a wire-bin with stable-sweepings, plant the Horseradish in that, and harvest long, straight, clean, Ready To Shred roots, without all the hassle of deformed, soil-grown roots, next year.  I had the same Plan last year...

But here's why Chrain doesn't taste like the Olde Tyme Thinge.  IT CAN'T.  You see, the characteristic Horseradish flavour comes about in an interesting8 way:  The pungent aroma and flavour of Horseradish is a Mustard Oil produced from two separate chemicals that occur in separate cells within Horseradish roots.  The Oil in question is only produced when you crush the root, mingling the two components.  This oil is highly volatile, escaping easily through through rubber seals of glass jars.  It is almost as difficult to contain as Hydrogen gas9, so flavour and odour don't last long once the chrain has been made up.

Now we can understand why Store Bought chrain is but a pale, pathetic imitation of the Real Thing.  But how do we explain that chrain made from Store Bought Roots lacks the authority of the Real McCohen?

Warren (my farmer friend across the way) had to deliver his Horseradish samples to the Supermarkets  at least three months ago.  He had to deliver the Bulk Fresh Produce at least 6 weeks ago.    I, on the other hand, harvested my
Horseradish root at its very Prime.  A mere ten days before Pesach.

Harvested two months before its Prime;  Transported across half a continent;  cold storaged until Ready For Processing.  Pasteurized.  Radeurized.  God-Knows-What-erized.  How the hell could Commercial Horseradish ever taste like the real thing?  Thin, straggly, pre-teen Horseradish roots, not yet matured... How can anybody expect them to substitute for True Horseradish?

So the sad, sorry story is that Store Bought just cannot compete with Home Grown.  My Dad (and Uncle) are right.  "You Just Can't Get Decent Chrain Anymore."

Unless you grow your own.

You see, in their youth, the only Chrain available at Pesach was what Uncle Scholem  grew.  In their memory of Pesach Past; in their recollection of childhood seders, in the tears they cried from for our Ancestors Freed from Slavery In Egypt, my Dad (and Uncle) were right.  Chrain Ain't What It Was.  It can't be!  Nothing harvested months ago can be!

I suspect that this story is all too true for far too many foodstuffs eaten in good faith by masses of people everywhere.  People who believe they're eating Real Food.  The truth is that they're eating Prematurely Harvested Crap.  It is not any single body's fault.  Not the Farmer's -- he just grows the stuff and ships what the supermarkets are willing to buy.   Not the Supermarket's fault -- they just buy it in, ship it out (usually about as fast as it's being offloaded from the truck at the back of the store.)  And certainly not the consumer's fault -- they just wanna buy Horseradish Root.

How many flavours are lost to the mass of humanity?  How many wonderful tastes will most people never know?  Simply because they cannot or will not grow their own?

[1] and atheists of Jewish descent...
[2] well... somebody's ancestors, anyway!

[3] Particularly poignant for Jews4 who grew-up in Apartheid South Africa.

[4] and atheists of Jewish descent who have an functioning conscience...

[5] There was a "5"?  Give me anothe Scothc!

[6] Been watching too much of the Black Books series lately... You supply the voices.

[7] OK, admittedly some of that is just old men remembering their youth through rose-tinted specs.

[8] ...for some value of "interesting"...

[9] I exaggerate!10

[10] ... but only slightly.

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