If you’re from some other part of the country and you think about Missouri and neighboring Southern Illinois, you might think of the Mississippi River, the Gateway Arch, Amish country, or even the city of Chicago to the north. If you think of the region in terms of food, you might remember the many fine restaurants in St. Louis that you encountered on a business trip, or maybe a tour of the world’s largest brewer, Anheuser Busch. But you probably don’t think of horseradish and maple syrup when you think of St. Louis and the surrounding area. Who would? Horseradish comes from California and when you think of maple syrup you get an image of some picture print by Currier and Ives of a farm in Vermont.
Right across the river in Collinsville Illinois about sixty percent of the horseradish in the world is grown. Like brewing beer, the whole idea of growing horseradish in the fertile bottom soil of the Mississippi began in the 1800’s by German immigrants. As early as 1500 B.C. horseradish was known as one of the bitter herbs to be eaten during Passover. Horseradish was also used as a medicine to treat a wide variety of diseases before it caught on as a condiment in Europe in the 1600’s.
Horseradish is actually a member of the mustard family. The leaves are edible, but the root is where all of the spice is stored. Believe it or not, biting into a whole root won’t give you much of the “heat” until you start to chew. When the root is grated or crushed, volatile oils are released that stimulate the nasal passages. In the United States about 24 million pounds of horseradish roots are ground and processed to make about 6 million gallons of the sauce. The thing that is amazing is that there are only 19 farms in Collinsville that produce all of that horseradish. Check out the J.R. Kelly Company (618-344-2910) where you can get bulk horseradish root for about $1.79 a pound or the adjacent Keller farms. You might also want to attend the Horseradish Festival that takes place in June of each year.
Way back when the American Indians roamed the forests, the story goes that a brave was practicing throwing his tomahawk at a maple tree. When he went back to retrieve it the next day, some of the sap had run out from the tree. He tasted it and it was sweet. He collected some of the drippings and took it home to use in cooking. When the thin sap was heated, it turned into syrup that was very sweet and delicious. More heating to remove all of the water further refined this process and maple sugar, which was easier to store and carry, was born. The Mason Hollow Maple Syrup Farm is near Grafton, Illinois, which is actually pretty close to where they grow all of that horseradish. About 12 years ago, the owners of the farm noticed how many sugar maple trees were in the area and now have about 200 taps in nearly 150 trees on the property. Winter tours are available from January until the beginning of March and you can see for yourself how the process works from sap to syrup.