Growing a Salad Bonanza
I suspect we have our Victorian forebears to blame for the dreadful British habit of cooking and cooking vegetables, so destroying both their flavour and nutritional value. But it does seem that we’re at last beginning to throw off the Victorian yoke and to appreciate, once again, the subtle delights of using vegetables raw in salads. Not only does this mean that vitamins and flavour survive intact, but we save on cooking fuel, and also on garden space, for salad vegetables, above all others, lend themselves to intensive cultivation in small areas, especially when using cut-and-come-again and broadcasting techniques..
Salads have waxed and waned in popularity in this country. They ‘came in’, literally, with the Romans, who, appreciating their health-giving and fuel-saving qualities, encouraged their use. Radish,, , , and cucumber were all introduced by the Romans — but after the Romans withdrew we stopped cultivating them.
There is little evidence of the cultivation of any but the most basic vegetables until the fifteenth century, when monastic and domestic herb gardens, previously devoted to medicinal herbs, began to branch out and grow culinary herbs for flavouring soups and sauces. This gradually developed to include what were then known as ‘salad herbs’. A list of ‘herbes for a salad’ in a fifteenth-century cookery book now in the British Museum shows us the sort of plants being grown for that purpose: cresses, dandelion, chickweed,, rocket, , wild , wild celery, primrose buds, violet, daisy and borage flowers . and so on.
From these quiet beginnings developed what can only be called a salad bonanza. From the late sixteenth until the mid-nineteenth centuries, salads ruled. The host of superb gardening books written in those early years by famous men such as Parkinson, Worledge, the diarist Evelyn, Batty Langley and many others, all assumed that vegetables were mainly for salads.
An astonishing range of plants was used in salads, either cultivated in the garden or collected from the wild. And all parts of plants were used, not just the leaves, but buds, flowers,and roots — the latter admittedly cooked and allowed to cool. One list given by Parkinson, in his 1629 gardening classic Paradisus in Sole Terrestis, included the following: asparagus, lettuce, lamb’s lettuce, purslane, colewort ( , in this case using the boiled mid-ribs), endive, succory (the blue-flowered wild chicory), chervil, rampion roots, cresses, rocket (Mediterranean, not garden rocket), salad burnet, , tansy, parsley, fennel, pot marigold flowers (‘pickled against the winter’), pickled clove gilliflower (clove-scented pink) and wild goat’s beard.
An equally impressive range of techniques was used to ensure an all-year supply of ‘salading’. Crops were brought on by forcing on hotbeds of fermenting manure. Some were covered with calico-topped frames, later superseded by glass frames and bell jars, all skilfully used to extend the natural season of salad crops. Many vegetables were blanched to make them white and sweet. This was done in dark cellars, under pots, by burying them in sand, wrapping them in straw, or simply by tying the leaves together (see ‘Forcing and Blanching’ ).
In those pre-freezer days, everything imaginable was pickled for winter: cucumber, the fleshy leaves of purslane,, , globe artichokes, , beetroots, broom and elder buds, radish pods, flowers, and herbs such as tarragon and chervil — all to add spice to winter salads.
Sometimes ‘simple salads’ of one ingredient were made. More often, it seems, they were ‘compound’ — compounded of a variety of plants, the ‘mild and inspid’ carefully balanced with the ‘sharp and biting’. Garnished with flowers, what a wonderful blend of flavour, texture and colour those old salads must have been. Strange that they died out.
They never completely died out on the European continent, where, even today, cultivated and wild plants, herbs, seedlings and flowers are used in salads. Some common continental salad plants, endives, chicories, coloured lettuce for example, are almost unknown here, although easily grown and in some cases exceptionally hardy. Also neglected is our own heritage of native and naturalized salad plants — corn salad, rocket, land , claytonia or winter purslane, to name a few. There’s no reason why these, and other less common plants, should not be grown today to add new dimensions to modern salads — both in summer and winter.
Here are some ideas for salad plants: Starting with summer, the ‘Salad Bowl’ type of lettuce, still widely grown in the USA, is well worth trying. These don’t form true hearts, but their pretty, frilly leaves can be picked individually over a long period. One type is known as ‘Oak-Leaved’, the leaves having rounded, indented edges very similar to oak. Both the ordinary and the ‘Oak-Leaved’ Salad Bowl have green and red forms, the latter very striking.
Of the more familiar, hearted, summer lettuces, the crisphead and cos type are infinitely better value in a salad than the soft, rounded ‘cabbage’ lettuce. Queen of them all to my mind is the semi-cos ‘Little Gem’, a sweet, neat and crunchy variety. Recommended crisphead varieties are ‘Great Lakes’, ‘Iceberg’, ‘Minetto’, ‘Webb’s Wonderful’ and ‘Windermere’.
That ancient salad herb purslane (Portulaca oleracea) contributes taste and texture to salads. The succulent, rounded leaves are normally green, although there is a golden form. Purslane thrives in hot weather, preferring a well-drained, sunny position: it is miserable in cold conditions, so start it indoors in April or outdoors in May or June.
The same treatment should be meted out to its cousin the iceplant (Mesembryanthemum crystallinum); this owes its name to the glands on its substantial, succulent leaves, which sparkle like dew drops in the sunshine. Previously grown as asubstitute (it flourishes in the hot conditions in which spinach tends to run to seed), it has a distinctive flavour and striking appearance in a salad.
Rawhave always had their advocates, but equally good raw are the membrane-free pods of mangetout or sugar peas, which have an excellent sweet flavour and crunchy texture. Another overlooked salad ingredient is radish pods. Every summer brings its quota of radish sowings which run to seed. Don’t uproot them: the pods, picked plump and green when they still snap clean in half, are delicious. Flavour ranges from mild to hot depending on variety. If supply exceeds demand, pickle the surplus for winter.