This week, contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm gives us an essay that turns on a historic canal, a chance meeting and an ugly root, Armoracia rusticana, or, as it is more commonly known, horseradish. One note: If you've never had freshly grated horseradish root, it has a much milder, earthy bite than the stuff you'll find on your grocer's shelf.
I've got a mule and her name is Sal,
Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal,
She's a good ol' worker and a good ol' pal.
Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal,
We've hauled some barges in our day,
Filled with lumber, coal and hay,
And we know ev'ry inch of the way,
From Albany to Buffalo.
In 1825, the Erie Canal opened, allowing the shipment of agricultural goods from Buffalo to Albany, and then down the Hudson to markets and ports of New York City. It was a stunning and audacious achievement for a young nation. This 363-mile self-contained and mostly artificial body of water had 36 locks that accommodated the 550-foot elevation difference between the two cities. Elegant aqueducts carried the canal, about 40 feet wide and a scant four feet deep, over rivers and ravines. Moving produce and freight by canal barge is slow but highly efficient, roughly twice as efficient as rail. Stretches of the original canal are still used to move freight.
The horseradish plant.
The opening of the canal had a huge impact on the hill towns of New England. Marginal farms were abandoned, their soils having been depleted after a century of use, and the farmers moved to the fertile soils of Western New York and Ohio. There was a shortage of timber in southern New England, so the houses and barns were disassembled and the wood used elsewhere. The first house the two of us owned was in New Haven, Connecticut. Built around 1830, most of the framing and planks were recycled from abandoned barns. Anomalous paint, dimensions, nail holes and notches betrayed their earlier use in a barn.
One of these abandoned farms was located on a hilltop in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts. All that remained of the homestead was a brick chimney and a caved-in stone foundation. The big locust trees still shaded these remnants. Unlike many of the abandoned farms, the meadow was used as summer pasture by a nearby farm, so the old fields remained open. Underneath the locusts, a horseradish patch still flourished about 150 years after its cultivators moved westward. Every autumn, after the tops died off, we dug a dozen or so roots. Gardening and cooking authors reflexively describe horseradish as an "invasive plant." Robust, expansive and persistent, certainly, but it it is not invasive. The horseradish roots we gathered in the autumn were from a root planted two centuries earlier, a life longer than Ghengis Khan or Alexander, and they yet remained just a small patch.
A bit south of the horseradish plant, Ambrose Hunt was born in Hillsdale, New York, in 1803. He moved westward shortly after the canal was finished, settling in the Finger Lakes region. Old habits die hard, so he found another farm on a hill. Our daughter farms that land on Italy Hill in Branchport, New York with her husband, Jonathan Hunt. After an unsuccessful inquiry, the Hunts assumed the house in Hillsdale fell to the same fate as other abandoned homesteads. One day, Anthony's brother, a landscaper, brought a bottle of the Hunt's wine to a client of his in Hillsdale. Seeing the label, she exclaimed, "that's interesting, my house was once owned by a family called Hunt." In vino verum.
Horseradish is a wolfish, cussed root and as unyielding at harvest as the most stubborn canal mule. Few farms bother with it, especially in the heavy soils of the Willamette Valley. It grows on our farm because it reminds us of the beautiful pasture on Maple Hill, the Erie Canal and winter meals livened up with its evanescent bite. Horseradish is the Bohemian parmesan. Grated or shaved into soups or salads, on meat or fish, or on top of mashed potatoes, it brightens the winter table. One of the great wonders to us is why restaurants don't have a horseradish steward on the staff. "Would you like a bit of freshly grated horseradish on your vichyssoise?" A lot more stylish than the affected fetish with an oversized pepper grinder.
Don't let your opinion of horseradish be shaped by the prepared root in a jar. The vinegar and mustard oil in the processed condiment linger on the palate. The mustard oil is used the boost the heat of the horseradish, but the oil destroys that fleeting and refined pungency you find in the freshly grated version.