Hot and Smelly
No not me! Mind you the description has been apt on occasion. No the title refers to the two things I want to talk about today, hot wasabi and smelly Stinking Bishop.
Sushi first became really fashionable in the UK during the middle 1980’s. I remember my first taste of tuna nigiri vividly and I have loved it ever since. I was dipping each mouthful into the small dish of soy sauce and savouring every bite. Then I noticed the little, bright green pyramid of paste to the side of my plate, I had no idea what it was, this was all new to me but me being either adventurous or foolish I picked up about half the pyramid and plastered it on top of my next piece. In my mouth it went and a short chew was followed by crossed eyes and a searing pain in the back of my throat and nose. Now I like good hot horseradish with my roast beef but this was something else. The next thirty seconds or so were nasal torture but I was relieved to find it dissipated quickly after that. I learnt my lesson and now treat what I soon found out was japanese horseradish or wasabi with more respect.
So what exactly is wasabi? Well in truth that small green pyramid on my plate was not genuinely wasabi. The true wasabi condiment is very simply the grated stem of of Wasabia japonica Which is a member of the cabbage family as are other spicy tasting plants like radish, mustard and common horseradish, have you noticed how raw cabbage can also taste quite hot? The volatile compounds which give these hot sensations are not so much a taste sensed on the tongue as a smell detected at the back of the nose. In fact ordinary horseradish has been used as smelling salts in the past due to the sharp, acrid shock it produces but which quickly clears. These compounds are water soluble which means they are rapidly washed away and why the sensation is quite fleeting. Wasabi differs in this respect from chilli which contains oil soluble capsaicin that coats the tongue and lingers for quite some time.
To prepare true wasabi it is necessary to break down the cells of the plant stem. This initiates various chemical reactions whose end products produce the flavour. To do this you simply need to remove the outer skin and grate it as finely as possible using a special grater. In japan this grater would often be made from shark skin which has the necessary roughness, however ceramic or plastic versions are more common in the west. Once grated a short resting period of a couple of minutes is needed for the flavour to develop but after about fifteen minutes it begins to dissipate and lose it’s strength so use it soon after grating.
Freshly grated wasabi is a wet, light green paste, almost odourless at first but quite quickly developing it’s acrid horseradish like aroma. The flavour on your tongue is a little grassy, or herby and slightly sweet but this is quickly followed by a stinging heat mainly in the nose. The strength can vary from a quite mild warmth to an eye watering, searing heat which rapidly peaks and then declines almost as quickly. Only a very small amount is needed to season whatever it accompanies and it really does, as you would expect, compliment sushi well. I recently served a starter of sesame seeded, seared tuna with a small selection of fresh wasabi, thickened yuzu juice (just add a little xanthan gum) and umeboshi plum as seasonings. That alongside some pickled vegetable and a little rice vermicelli went down rather well. Other uses I can think of is as an addition to a salad dressing (soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, a little sugar and wasabi perhaps), wasabi butter melted onto a steak or in a stuffing for a grilled mackerel.
Let’s look back again at that little, bright green addition to my first sushi. If it wasn’t real wasabi what was it? Well, it could have contained some small amount of wasabi, which may be the dried leaf, but it was mainly a mixture of ordinary horseradish, mustard and a green coloring, hopefull chlorophyl extracted from spinach but possibly the artificial colours Brilliant Blue and Tartrazine, the later has been linked to hyperactivity in children and alergic reactions and well avoided. So is there a place for this wasabi powder in cooking? Of course there is. Make sure to read the ingredients, avoid the colourings and try and ensure you get at least a percentage of real wasabi other than that it is a perfectly acceptable substitute as long as you remember it is not the genuine article!
So where can you get it? The only source of fresh wasabi I know of in the UK is The Wasabi Company where you can get the fresh stems/rhizomes, graters and brushes. No it isn’t cheap, currently £15.00 for 60g so perhaps best reserved for a special occasion though only small amounts are needed. They also supply other Japanese products like the aforementioned yuzu and umeboshi, not just wasabi. Also available is their own wasabi powder which contains no artifitial colours and they claim has the highest percentage of wasabi available at 20% alongside horseradish, mustard and no artificial colouring.
Of all the cheeses I have come across this has got to be the one with the strongest smell. When ripe and at eating temperature, more about that in a minute, it will fill your kitchen with a strong, sweet, earthy and very cheesy perfume, sure to invite comment from anyone entering. It’s a soft cows milk cheese made exclusively by Charles Martell & Son. It apparently gets it’s name from a variety of pear of the same name which in it’s own turn was named after a Frederick Bishop, a farmer who lived in SE England in the 1800’s and who was given the nicknamed Stinking Bishop; nothong to do with smelly pontifs! Why named after a pear? The cheese is washed in perry (pear cider) which causes it to develop an orange rind and promotes the growth of harmless but odoriferous bacteria producing the pungent aroma and spicy taste.
The rind is edible but in common with many cheeses might benefit from a gentle wipe to remove any light mould. The curd is soft, very soft if it is particularly ripe. It should bulge a little when cut. If the cut surface is firm and remains in place or is concave then it is under ripened. If it runs from within it’s rind and onto the board or plate then you have perhaps waited a little too long but it is still good to eat, some would say perfect.
Once you get past the smell, I wouldn’t say it was off putting it just takes a while to accept, then the cheese is soft and creamy with an initial, sharp, spicy fruitiness lingering a moment before giving way to a deep earthiness. The spicy base brings it all together but so distinct are these two flavours you would almost think you had eaten two things one after the other. Milder cheeses cannot compete so if serving with a selection then keep this one to sample towards the end, although a strong blue like Queso de cabrales would take the last spot! Stinking Bishop is delicious with a plain cracker or a slice of good bread, a juicy pear or a slice of sweet ripe beef tomato. I haven’t tried it but a stinking bishop burger sounds like an excbelent idea!
I mentioned the eating temperature for cheese just now. We all do it, we fancy a sandwich so we grab some cheese from the fridge, slap it between two pieces of bread and dig in. That’s OK but if you take the cheese from the fridge and allow it to come up to room temperature for about an hour in it’s wrapping it will be much more flavourful. If you are eating good cheese then never, ever serve it fridge cold, cool room temperature is the ideal. You need to time it right but generally an hour in the kitchen will suffice just remember the combination of central heating and a hot oven can mean the kitchen is far too hot, warm and sweaty cheese is even worse than cold.
Now a little entertainment until next time …