The black radish, for me, has always been emblematic of Central Europe in winter. A poor Central Europe. Feudal, or Communist, or an uneasy amalgam of the two. Not the Central Europe of today, where internationalist chefs, trend-aware housewives and hipster bachelors are all cooking in a liberated sub-Mediterranean idiom dictated by recipe books.
Black radish. There they always were, on every market stall and in every supermarket and grocer’s vegetable tray. When the bunches of Chasselas grapes, the plums and the pears, the aubergine and the paprika of early autumn were done, the black radish would remain, with the cabbages and the bottled peas, as the luckless lottery prizes of winter’s tombola.
What does one do with a black radish? The skin is thick and wizened like the sole of an old foot. Cut them open and the salt-crystal whiteness has all the seductive powers of disinfectant soap.
But they were ubiquitous. They still are. Some use must exist for them. They can’t all just be chopped into a rough dice and plopped into goulash soup.
Then I found an idea, in a book by the artist and writer Colin Spencer: black radish with all-i-oli. Once again, the Mediterranean was coming to the rescue. But this particular fusion of Central and Southern European traditions was appealing to me. I live in Central Europe now. I lived in Spain in (what feels like) a previous incarnation.
Colin Spencer’s book provided no set recipe, just the (rather brilliant) idea. So here is the method I used:
For the black radish: Put it whole in a pan of boiling water. Let it simmer away until it is soft all the way through (test with a skewer). Take it out and leave to cool slightly. When it stops being too hot to touch, make a slit in the skin, hold it under a warm tap and rub the skin off. Set aside to cool. Then cut into even slices.
For the all-i-oli: For two people I took four decent-sized cloves of garlic and mashed them well. Transfer to a mortar and pummel them some more with the pestle, adding a pinch of salt. Slowly add olive oil to the garlic and patiently but insistently work it with the pestle, round and round, adding more oil all the time. I ended up using slightly less than a quarter of a litre. The trick is to get it to emulsify. Don’t panic, take it calmly. If it’s stubborn you can add a couple of drops of white wine vinegar or lemon juice. Mine looked as if it wasn’t going to “take”. I left it alone for a few minutes and then went back to it. The ingredients had bonded and the emulsification happened in seconds.
The slices of radish, with all-i-oli on top, went well with a simple supper of toast and sardines.