Written by J.F. Pirro
In northern Germany, the root’s called meerrettich, or “more radish.” But meer also means “sea” in German, and the root originally grew by the Black Sea. In England, though, meer has been interpreted as “mare,” an adult female horse. In Sweden, horseradish—an odd name since it has little to do with radishes or horses—is called pepparrot or pepperoot.
In Austria, it’s called kren—meaning to cry. Now, that fits.
In the Lehigh Valley, and throughout the Northeastern seaboard and Mid-Atlantic region, we often call and spell horseradish Kelchner’s, a brand that made Bucks County home since 1938, but now Allentown since a bold expansion move in 2014. Today, the business’ “hot” spot couldn’t be more local—a significant factor: Curtailing the time the horseradish root goes from ground to shelf to table is key to its heat and flavor.
It’s not the root itself that’s hot, though. When bitten or ground, isothiocyanates are enzymatically hydrolyzed to yield allyl isothiocyanate, a natural defense mechanism that makes an intruder’s eyes water and nose burn.
“It goes wild and shoots off,” says Eric Rygg, the 38-year-old president of Wisconsin-based Silver Spring Foods, the parent company of Kelchner’s. “When it’s real fresh, it’s almost too hot. A week, or a month, down the line, it hits the sweet spot, so we err on the side of starting too hot.”
Kelchner’s, which was acquired in 2009, is known for its bite. Even its cocktail sauce is sharp. Shipped from Allentown it’s faster to the shelf. In demand, it doesn’t sit long. “One thing’s certain, once it’s processed and stored, it begins losing heat,” he says. “Horseradish isn’t wine: It doesn’t get better with age.” Rygg, formerly the fourth-generation family-owned condiment company’s vice president of sales and marketing, and before that Kelchner’s president, calls it “complementary heat.” Horseradish pairs well with seafood, roast beef, and prime rib. It conforms to the get-healthy trend: It’s a natural no cholesterol, no-fat, and gluten-free boost.
A year-round condiment, by June and July—National Horseradish Month—seashore sales skyrocket. The fall brings tailgating and its needs for flavor. Sales soar in November and December for the holidays, then pick up again for Easter and Passover celebrations. May starts grilling season.
Allentown, where 10 employees run the almost 20,000-square-foot refrigerated warehouse (double the size in Dublin) and load five brand-new delivery trucks daily, is an ideal distribution hub. There’s easy access to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., and increasingly the entire Northeast market as Kelchner’s, in particular, pushes product farther north into New England and farther south into the Carolinas. “The move has helped us grow,” Rygg says.
He’s also moved to Wisconsin to get closer to his own and the company’s roots, returning to the “mother ship,” says Rygg, whose great-grandfather founded Huntsinger Farms, Inc., the world’s largest grower and processor of horseradish, and Silver Spring Foods in 1929. This is its 90th year in business.