The pain of cutting willow and the joy of using it

There have been many clear, bright, days in December and January. The clarity of winter light causing the leafless trees to stand out in stark beauty against the skyline always makes me pause, gaze and marvel at nature. Throughout the day as the light and the colour of the sky changes, lightening then darkening again, the trees stand still and their shape and beauty is accentuated by the different tones and contrast.

It’s also the time of year to carry out traditional woodland management tasks like coppicing and hedge laying. It’s a perfect pastime providing exercise after the winter indulgences and in activity but there is also a sense of grounding and being at one with nature – setting the scene for spring and the start of a new growing year.

Over recent weeks there has been much wielding of billhooks by certain members of our household as some very old and straggly hedges have been laid in the traditional manner. It is very satisfying to see a hedgerow all neatly laid with neat cuts (pleachers) open to the sunshine ready for new growth as soon as the sap starts to rises in spring. The finishing touch to the perfect hedge is the bindings – the sue of long lengths of material woven along the top of the hedge t hold if firmly in place helping to make it stock proof until the hedge regenerates. I read recently that this was traditionally done with long lengths of bramble (with thorns removed) which shows just how our predecessors made use of every bit of material.

I must confess de-thorning brambles does not really appeal and hence my pain as I look at the beautiful straight stems of willow against the blue sky and know it’s time to start coppicing so that I can bind the hedge and make use of this season’s crop. The first cut is the hardest but as you make progress through the stand of willows there is an immense satisfaction sorting the willow and once the last stem is cut there is the beauty of the coppiced trees and the anticipation of next season’s growth.

The hedge has its binding, there are neatly tied bundles of willow sorted into different colours and lengths and there is the traditional willow ‘flower’ arrangement of coloured stems and even a few pussy willow in the living room.

Next job? Making some hurdles using coppiced hazel and green willow to act as rabbit fences around the herb bed.

Willow against winter sky

Willow against winter sky

Line of a laid hedge before bindings

Line of a laid hedge before bindings

Close up of willow binding

Close up of willow binding

Willow bindings on a laid hedge

Willow bindings on a laid hedge

Pleachers on a laid hedge

Pleachers on a laid hedge

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The kick of horseradish

I caught a snippet of The One Show last night and was fascinated to find out about Mapson’s Farm who grow fields and fields of horseradish. I don’t grow fields and fields of horseradish but I do have quite a big patch and as the feature made me realise I haven’t harvested any yet this season. Like parsnip horseradish improves with the onset of winter and hard frost but the danger is that procrastination can end up with no horseradish – just when you decide to dig it up there peeping through the soil is the first sign of the new season’s growth.

I would love to think that the plant got its name from looking like a giant radish that has a pungent flavour that gives a ‘kick’ to food. However it is more likely that the name comes from the prefix horse meaning large and it is a large root. Horseradish (Cochlearia armoracia or Armoracia rusticana) has been cultivated since the earliest times and has many medicinal as well as culinary uses. The young leaves can be used in salads but it is the knobbly root that is most commonly used.

Horseradish is always grown from root cuttings and in fact when you dig up the root to harvest it is virtually impossible to dig it all up so be warned if you introduce horseradish to your garden plant it somewhere where you don’t mind it taking up a fairly permanent residence.

I think it is sad that most people’s encounter with horseradish is via a jar of commercially produced horseradish sauce as it is a wonderfully pungent and versatile herb. But it’s not for the faint hearted – peeling and grating the root can bring a tear to the eye of just about everyone and it’s pretty good at clearing the sinuses too! My solution is to dig up the roots once a year and prepare myself for a few tears.

One of the simplest things and most useful things to make is horseradish butter – simply peel the root and either grate it or using a food processor mix it into butter. Pat the butter into a narrow sausage shape and wrap it in foil (or the butter wrapper) and then pop it in a bag and freeze. The butter can be used straight from the frozen block whenever you want it – cutting a few slices and returning the rest to the freezer for use another day. Horseradish butter is a wonderful addition to mashed or boiled root vegetables especially carrots and parsnips, melted into mashed potatoes or even topping a succulent piece of beef, chicken or fish.

Horseradish loses its flavour if it dries out so if you don’t use all your harvest in one go either store the complete roots in damp sand in a cool place or peel and store the root immersed in white wine vinegar. Then grate a little whenever needed. I usually resort to the sand method and then I don’t use it all by late spring I can pop it a pot to grow and give to friend or even sell for charity.

Horseradish helps with the digestion of rich and oily food so that’s why horseradish sauce is the traditional accompaniment to roast beef. It’s quick and easy to make by adding the finely grated root to whipped cream and adding a dash of white vinegar and even a little dry mustard if you fancy it But one of my favourite uses is as the ‘secret’ ingredient in smoked mackerel pate to give it a bit of a kick.

So thanks to the timely reminder on The One Show the job of digging up and ‘processing’ the horseradish has moved up the ‘to do’ list and I look forward to horseradish butter and mackerel pate even if the tears will flow in the process. Maybe this year I will remember to try the leaves when they are young and tender too.

Mackerel pate recipe