What is it with the English and salad? You could be forgiven that believing that a salad could be one of the very easiest dishes to concoct, and yet, in a nation that is obsessed with obesity and unhealthy eating, we are dismal at making salads?
For my mother, salad was a confection made from various slight variations of a limited number of ingredients. I remember lettuce, watercress, mustard and cress (which my father terms “grass” and hates), celery, cucumber, radishes, beetroot (pickled) and grated carrot. Some combination of this would be accompanied by boiled eggs or cold meat – I don’t remember fish coming into the equation. In the summer, new potatoes might be served on the side.
There were no onions and no herbs, and Heinz Salad Cream was the dressing of choice, sitting alongside the salt and pepper on the table, ready to see if you could whack the base of the bottle just enough to get some – but not too much – out.
If food was primarily fuel, then salad was the health-conscious version of this – but bland enough to risk any sensual pleasure. It was the ultimate puritan at the feast.
Later, during my athletic phase, I developed a liking for a dish that I discovered in a running magazine – ‘munchy pasta salad’. It included pasta (good old complex carbs for energy on your run), plus celery, apple, walnuts, raisins, orange segments and a dressing made from low-fat yogurt, orange juice and black pepper.
Such an exotic creation introduced me to a whole world of ideas, since only one of those ingredients was familiar salad fodder to me before then.
And then I discovered cucumber – okay, not cucumber per se, but organic cucumber. It was the 1980s and it was Lancaster. A new shop had opened near my then workplace, selling organic produce – a word I was totally uninformed about at the time. Eventually, out of curiosity, I ventured in. And for some reason or other, I picked up a cucumber – even though it was more gnarled and smaller and less regular than the supermarket ones, I decided to give it a go.
When I got home and took a knife to it, the shock was massive: it had an aroma, for goodness sake! And it had taste too.
The lesson was not fully learnt, since it was to be some years before I actually discovered I could enjoy food, in both the preparation and consumption. But now I wouldn’t dream of buying non-organic cucumber – it’s a total waste of money. And good cucumber means that even cucumber sandwiches are worth making and eating.
Perhaps only at such moments do you realise that so much of the food that we consume in the UK has been mass-produced to such complete tastelessness that cardboard would be an entirely adequate substitute.
I had a lovely salad on Sunday afternoon. Some lamb’s lettuce, a few small tomatoes, halved, and some goat’s cheese. A light dressing of lemon juice and virgin oil. Nothing else required – but it relied on really good ingredients.
Eating out in the UK, if you expect a decent salad, then be prepared for disappointment. Insipid lettuce, tasteless tomatoes, watery cucumber …
The deli bar at work is a perfect case in point. They always tell us that the ingredients at the salad bar are fresh. I’ve no doubt that this is right – but they’re also all rubbish, the cheapest possible products and lacking in any flavour at all. For goodness sake – the pickled beetroot is devoid of a taste, even of vinegar!
Is it really too much to ask for a little salad to be fresh, crisp and full of flavour? How do the French do it – because they do? I remember having a salad for lunch in Perpignan three years ago. We were due to get a train early in the afternoon and needed something quick to eat. A small café nearby clearly served pre-made salads for workers.
I can’t remember the price, but it was far from expensive. I picked a huge plate of leaves, tomatoes, olive, raisins, nuts and cheeses (three types), with dressing on the side. The man serving me peeled away the cling film as he handed it to me over the counter. And do you know what – it was smashing. Not complicated, but fresh and actually full of taste.
So can it really be such a difficult thing to make an acceptable salad? Elizabeth David railed against dismal salads more than once. Unfortunately, while we’ve come a long way in some areas of our culinary life, I suspect she’d still be mortified at what is so often passed off as salad in the UK.
The salad, it seems, it more an art form in the UK than one might expect.
So, here are a trio of personal favourites.
• In the tomato season only – sliced Mozzarella with sliced tomatoes, a few leaves of basil and seasoning. It doesn’t need olive oil, because that could swamp the flavours.
• Chuck some lamb’s lettuce on a plate. Toast some raw walnut halves. Halve, core and then slice a pear and lay it on the leaves. Crumble some goat’s cheese on top. Dress with a mix of fresh lemon juice to good virgin oil (about one to three parts).
• Scoop some melon balls out of a nice, ripe melon. Add some really good Serrano or Parma ham and some black olives. Take some cannellini or borlotti beans (this is where tinned stuff comes into its own), pulse briefly, pop in a saucepan with a squeeze of lemon juice and a little olive oil, and warm through. Drizzle a little – and it really does only need to be a little – good quality Balsamic vinegar over the salad (it’s gorgeous with the melon). And serve the bean purée on the side.