Saturday, 2 June 2012

My green and salad days

I have never been much of a fan of salad. And you can stop with the sniggering before you start – I don't mean I'm the stereotypical 'salad dodger'.

Actually, I need to be a tad more specific. My idea of a decent salad was something such as the one I picked up years ago from a running magazine, in the days when I pounded the pavements.

It involved slices of apple, sultanas (or raisins), chopped celery, walnuts, pasta shapes and a dressing of plain (low fat) yogurt thinned with orange juice and seasoned with black pepper.

Now that was a tasty salad.

One of the few recipe books I owned was an M&S book of salads – salads like that. Looking back at it now you realise how much we have changed in food terms in the intervening 30 years. What was considered ‘exotic’ then is hardly so now.

But a salad made up of lettuce and tomatoes and cucumber was, generally speaking, to be avoided.

In recent years, travel has broadened the mind on many things – and not least, on this matter.

Tomatoes in Collioure that taste of the sun have left me with year-long yearning for exactly that.

And salad pretty much anywhere across the Channel has been a revelation.

There was the one I had in a restaurant in Barcelona once (twice actually – going for a repeat the next year). It was a plate piled high with leaves, strawberry halves, nuts and more leaves, all dressed with the lightest touch.

I remember it, six (and five) years later, because it was so, so good, and because it introduced me to mesclun, the mix of small salad leaves.

There was the one in a café for office workers in Perpignan; another pile of leaves, this time with pine nuts and three different cheeses.

Everywhere we’ve been, what sticks in the mind is not complexity, but the freshness of the ingredients; these are leaves that actually have a taste and meaningful crispness.

In France generally, even the most cursory garnish is usually worth eating because at least it will be crisp and fresh. But this is far from being just a French thing.

In Brugge, it was the peppery cress that was almost obligatory – but, as we realised on the first taste, was far from boring.

Indeed, I eventually worked out what that was (thanks to George) and have subsequently sown a bowl of American land cress in the garden.

Many years ago, my first encounter with anything organic (insofar as anything labelled as such) was cucumber. An organic shop had opened in Lancaster. I was curious. Looking in, I was bemused by the range of what seemed to be rather scraggy looking fruit and veg.

This was in my pre-foodie days, but salad the sort of ideal, no-calorie stuff to fill up a constantly dieting individual. I bought a cucumber.

It was wrinkled and looked unappetising. But back at home, cutting in to it, I was astonished that it had a smell. And then it had a taste.

I don’t think it was the fact of being organic that gave it smell and taste. I suspect it was rather more to do with it not having been grown at an artificially fast pace. In recent years, I’ve bought my cucumbers from a farmer’s stall; they’re not organic, but the growth process is not artificially accelerated. And they do smell and taste good.

In fact, they taste so good that suddenly a cucumber sandwich becomes a pleasure.

But back in the UK, I rarely buy leaves and I almost never buy lettuce. Why would you? Water would be cheaper and taste about the same.

Last weekend, however, I spotted some small, tight lettuces on the Chegworth stall at Broadway Market. Organic, as it happens. I picked one up and sniffed. A smell!

I can’t remember what I paid for it, but it was gone by the following evening and I was pining for more. Not only had it had a smell, it had crispness and real taste too.

It wasn’t insipid stuff, pointless except as padding and a desultory nod toward five a day.

I managed to find an organic one during the week; that went in no time. Then another one at Borough Market yesterday. Gone quickly. Fortunately, Chegworth had a supply this morning. I came away with two.

My impressions about leafy, green salad have been changing – hence the planting of various salad crops in the garden. Although the baby salad leaves were destroyed by a snail, the nasturtiums are well on the way, the sorrel has recovered from the extremes of the weather, the lamb’s lettuce is developing and the land cress is starting to fill its pot.

The radishes and the spring onions appear to be on a go slow, but we shall see. The former have certainly not be helped by snails.

That’s without mentioning the tomato plants, which are soaring, with stalks thickening and flowers just beginning to develop.

And in the longer term, I hope to grow my own lettuce too.

Then there are the herbs, and the realisation that a few sprigs of mint or some basil can contribute so much to a salad.

My own salad days, in the Shakespearean sense, might not have involved much in the way of green salad – but I am experiencing a whole new period of salad days now.

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