How and where to forage for wild horseradish
Make the most of mother nature, with foraging advice from our expert, Fraser Christian
Horseradish is found growing wild virtually everywhere – you may have passed it by and simply mistaken it for dock leaves. One quick scrunch of the leaves in your hand will reveal the deep but refreshing smell of the horseradish. Its pungent, almost intoxicating aroma quickly starts the digestive juices working and it's a must with anything roasted, especially beetroot!
Where you'll find it
Banks, hedgerows and ditch edges are good places to start, but wherever a piece of root has fallen by chance or other, it's sure to have gained a foothold. If you grow it in the garden be sure to use a big pot or container, for fear of it spreading like wild fire. It's best to look for roots well away from human activity, where the ground or soil hasn't had anything chemical sprayed on it that may be present in the root itself.
How to forage it
After the first frosts or some really cold nights, the leaves will turn brown and wrinkled. Make a note of where the plants are by means of a marker – a painted stone or stick will do. Now wait until the plant dies right back and then go find your markers and dig the root up before the next frost – not during, or you may break the fork handle! Dig around the plant, lifting slightly as you go until the whole plant is raised. Keep the plant whole and unwashed until you use it, stored in a paper bag. But remember: the fresher the root, the better the flavour.
How to identify it
If you're already familiar with a dock leaf, then the leaf of the horseradish plant will seem very similar at first glance. The long, green spear-shaped leaves are ribbed and fairly strong, with a thick central stalk. The plant produces small white flowers and can get really big and cover vast areas – this is a good place to dig as the year-old roots are the best and freshest. It's usual to find small plant communities huddled together, probably created from the same original root or from one central larger plant.
Break off a small part of the leaf and rub it between your hands; it should immediately give off the familiar mustard-like smell of horseradish. The roots are similar to small, long parsnips in appearance and colour.
What you can do with it
The real powers of the wild horseradish are found when the leaves have died back in the winter, when the strong and pungent flavours are concentrated in the roots. Once cut or dried, the flavours become slightly bitter if left undressed, so always cook with the root or pop it into some vinegar as soon as possible.
The most common use of horseradish root is as a sauce (see recipe left), but it can also be added freshly grated to soups, pie mixes and stir-fries. The leaves don't have to be thrown away, either. A mixture of pre-steamed vegetables, pulses and rice can be wrapped up in the strong leaves and baked or roasted – this imparts a subtle flavour to the food and is a neat way of serving.
Wild Forage organises wild food and foraging courses along the seashore and in the countryside. Courses are run for small groups anywhere in the UK, plus individual courses in most southern counties. You can learn how to correctly identify and cook wild foods, as well as discover their medicinal and cosmetic qualities. For more info, visit www.wildforage.co.uk