I can’t have any more trifle. Is it me or is everything around this time of year yellow and viscous? Cauliflower cheese, the aforementioned trifle with its layers of custard and cream and small pillows of sponge soaked in a harrowing and unnamed alcohol. Potatoes, parsnips, pavlova, wheels of varicosely veined cheese, the sweating clay mantle of marzipan draped over a now moribund Christmas cake (thank you, Alan Partridge, for reviving the word ‘moribund’).
I would kill for something green and empty of any tracklements or gravy. Something, as a young friend said recently, ‘farmier’. So it is in search of the farmy – still showing signs of its former life in a field, a bit on the grubby side – that I am featuring horseradish and chives, and beetroot with the tops still on. Admittedly, horseradish is on the spectrum of yellow, but far from viscous, it is cleansing, almost brutal in its sinus clearing properties.
This has been our first English Christmas for four years. I had forgotten what happens; we have had no one there at all, just echoing voices down the phone and talking heads via Skype, that instrument of torture, all smoke and mirrors. Then, all of a sudden, here we all are, sitting in the same overheated room for five and a half days eating individually wrapped chocolates housing an unfamiliar nut combination. Watching films incessantly, grazing like cattle, and forgetting, consciously, all the people who have nothing, and saying that next year we will volunteer for a homeless charity, to try to counteract the obscenity of all the waste. And then watching another film.
But these have been the highlights: travelling across the country afforded us sweeping views; rivers running red with iron in Somerset, an orange-bibbed pheasant launching itself into the air like a kite, faraway hills lush and dramatic with greenery and cold blue skies, and then the lashing rain that pitter-pattered on our skylight windows at night and came down in zig zags during the day. Frosty exteriors and meltingly warm central heating. Watching my dad play in his jazz band in a pub called The Valiant Soldier and meeting by chance a writer I’ve loved reading in The New Yorker, and admiring her shoes (Tessa Hadley).
Dancing with mum in the kitchen, my uncle playing the ukulele. Pretending to be Pina Bausch. Sharing christmas cake recipes; to ice or not to ice? Feeling for the first time in a long time that I am a version of something familiar, not exotic or an anomaly. My accent no longer ‘adorable’. I am no longer adorable! It’s exhausting, and I’m relieved.
Horseradish (below, mine) is a member of the crucifer family, along with radishes, turnips and mustard and looks like a rather disgusting parsnip. Unpeeled it smells of nothing, but once it is nude, it will make you weep copiously. Open a window. It is best treated in the same way that mustard is – it loves roast beef, glazed ham and sausages – really any fatty meats do well. Fatty, oily fish do too. In fact, I have had so many versions of this beetroot-horseradish-fatty fish-or-meat dish in recent months that I may well be verging on the unseasonal.
Grow your own horseradish with caution; it’s rampant and self-seeds and ‘wants to be’ highly invasive. If you find the root with the leaves still attached you can use them as a salad ingredient, or throw them into a saucepan with a glass of water and boil quickly, treating them as greens, though the leaves of my horseradish are always ravaged and ragged by the time the root is ready and go straight on the compost.
As for chives (Allium schoenoprasum), they add a lovely fresh, oniony grass-like taste – no surprise that they belong to the same family as the onion, leek, garlic and shallot. They have a natural affinity with anything creamy and/or with a nursery blandness such as eggs. Snip them with scissors rather than chop them with a knife. I see them growing ‘wild’ often though I suspect that it may just be a very vigorous, cultivated herb in someone’s abandoned hedge.
Horseradish & chive dressing with roasted beetroot
Adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, The Guardian
About 500g small beets
4 garlic cloves, unpeeled but bashed
1 large sprig fresh thyme (optional)
1 bay leaf (optional)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
A glug of olive oil
For the dressing
200ml thick yoghurt (Greek is good)
Large squeeze of lemon juice & one garlic clove peeled, bashed and chopped
3 heaped tbsp freshly grated horseradish (more if you’ve got a cold)
A small handful of finely chopped chives, plus more to finish
4 smoked mackerel fillets or scrambled eggs or an omelette
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oven to 200C/390F/gas mark 6. Scrub the beets, but leave them whole, then place on a large piece of foil. Scatter with the garlic, thyme leaves, bay leaf and some salt and pepper, then dribble with oil. Scrunch up the foil to make a sealed parcel, place it on a baking tray and put in the oven. Roast until tender – about 45 minutes for small ones. The beetroots are cooked when a knife slips easily into the flesh. Leave to cool, then top and tail them, and remove the skin. Cut into wedges and place in a large bowl.
Whisk together all the dressing ingredients and season. Divide the beetroots between four plates and dollop the horseradish in the vicinity. Scatter on some more chives, season to taste and serve with lemon wedges and/or some scrambled eggs and/or mackerel fillets.