Now is the time to plant your summer salad leaves and we are not talking lettuces. Apparently we should be sowing rows of mizuna, texel, tatsai, gold orach, serrated santo, celtuce, Greek cress, jaba and rhubarb chard. Not to mention mache, salad burnet and pak choi.
These leaves are the new materials of the modern chef's salad palette. The collection above, a mixture of Japanese, Chinese and Mediterranean leaves, are being grown by nurseries for some of the most superior restaurants. Customers in London range from the well-established Leith's and Clarke's to new stars such as Les Saveurs and L'Odeon.
It seems that just as we've got used to the idea of the modern salad (the mixed leaves sold in supermarkets in cellophane pillows) with lollo rosso, lollo biondi, oakleaf salad, frisee (curly endive), batavia, radicchio and rocket, chefs have decided to move the goalposts.
"Lollo rosso is banned from my kitchen," says Raymond Blanc, the feted owner-chef of Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons near Oxford, decisively. "It has no taste or texture. Lollo looks like frilly knickers, but I'm not interested in designer salads, prettiness for the sake of it, I'm solely committed to taste and texture. If it looks good too, so much the better."
Raymond Blanc has been in the vanguard of salad-making in Britain for two decades. We can certainly learn from the French how to dress a green salad. An abiding impression of life in Britain will always be the memory of ordering a pub salad of wet lettuce leaves, teeth closing on the grit which hasn't been rinsed out, the tongue twisting in torture from the too acid dressing.
And why do we settle for tasteless, thin-skinned green winter lettuce? Taste apart (for it has none), it is raised in plastic tunnels, force- fed on fertiliser whose provenance one must now wonder about, sprayed with pesticides. Joanna Blythman in her new book, The Food We Eat (Michael Joseph pounds 7.99), expresses concern about agrochemicals, especially organo- phosphates which you can't wash off. She points to a government check on winter lettuces in 1994, revealing that more than a quarter examined were contaminated with illegal, or excessive, levels of pesticides.
Agribusiness is a word which makes Raymond Blanc choke. When he opened the Manoir in 1983 he resolved to free himself from such horticultural tyranny by growing his own salad leaves, herbs and veg. He hired local gardener Richard Bartlett to make an organic kitchen garden which would also secure a supply of young vegetables.
"He handed me a list of 93 vegetables, salad leaves and herbs he wanted me to grow," remembers Mr Bartlett, "most of them from France. We had a lot of failures. They didn't grow well at all here." But gradually he grew to appreciate the Blanc philosophy and now he runs his own nursery, producing esoteric salad leaves for restaurants such as those above.
These are not salad leaves as most of us know them. Winter, spring, summer and autumn, sowing follows sowing in Mr Bartlett's plastic tunnels, as he cuts and comes again every few weeks, initially plucking, eventually scissoring infant leaves when they reach no more than two or three inches.
Stripped of their exotic names, many of the leaves are from the brassica family (pak choi cabbage and Chinese greens, radish, mustard and cress). Left to grow to full size they would be inedibly fierce and fiery. Plucked in their youth they have spicy, pungent notes and a variety of juicy, fleshy textures, as well as many differing colours and shapes.
Frances Smith, of Appledore Salads in Kent, was one of the first to urge us to turn over a new salad leaf. She grows an adventurous range of leaves, and to greater maturity. It was she, for example, who first introduced the pea shoot to modern salads. The pea seed is grown to a height three or four inches and then cropped. It contains all the concentrated flavour of a pea, is juicy and crunchy.
Her considerable contribution to seedsmanship is about to be acknowledged. The Savoy chef des cuisines, Anton Edelmann, will be using her leaves to prepare a Biodiversity Salad at a lunch next month to mark The Vegetable Challenge, a day-long conference designed to drum up support for native- grown produce (Savoy Hotel, London, 21 May; details from Christina Thomas on 0171 610 1180).
Co-organiser Lynda Brown, who grows about 30 different salad leaves in her garden near Henley-on-Thames, says that we all believe we have more choice than ever today in supermarkets. "But in reality we are getting less and less. We import out-of-season products flown in from around the world, when we could be growing our own, following the seasons around." She says that we must look to organisations such as the Henry Doubleday Research Foundation, Ryton, near Coventry, who can show that we can draw upon an infinite diversity of varieties.
Salad seeds are a case in point. For the bio-diverse lunch salad, Frances Smith will have grown parella (a tough, winter lettuce from Northern Italy), Brouge Grenobloise from France, Giant Mustard leaf from California's Fetzer organic gardens, purple-podded mange-tout, and pea shoots.
Back to Raymond Blanc for the last word. I was able to see a Manoir salad for myself, while enjoying the set lunch (pounds 29). It made its appearance during Act III of a gourmet feast.
Act I. Appetisers, morsels including foie gras, an anchovy straw, a mouthful of Provencal tomato puree, a deep-fried beignet of smoked haddock.
Act II. A densely-flavoured cup of saffron yellow pumpkin soup.
Act III Scene i. A moist and savoury terrine of pressed duck, with foie gras, and a ring of beady lentils with a creamy vinaigrette.
Act III Scene ii. The salad. A delicate counterpoint to the savoury meat, a crisp, juicy pyre of five different sorts of leaf with a gentle dressing, topped with toasted pine nuts and tiny bits of crispy bacon, the size of broken matchsticks. There were shreds of curly frisee, lamb's salad, radicchio, red escarole (bronze lettuce). And the elegant and spiky Japanese mizuna which looks like a dandelion as it might have been drawn by the monks who illustrated the Book of Kells.
We'd better quietly pass over Acts IV, V and VI of the rest of this delicious meal (tender guinea-fowl, intensely-flavoured raspberry souffle, petits- fours).
Raymond Blanc also uses pea-shoots, as well as pea tendrils, and white pea flowers which are very tasty. His summer favourites are Butterhead and Little Gem lettuces and there are many other leaves to provide flavour and texture contrast. In autumn, he uses Little Gem lettuce, curly endive, rocket, lamb's salad; in winter, Reine de Glace (Queen of the Ice) and lambs' salad (also known as corn salad and mache), purslane and claytonia which are pleasantly sour, and radicchio with its beetroot-coloured, crunchy, slightly bitter leaves. A pesticide-drenched, limp apology of a forced winter lettuce, however, never puts in an appearance.
MAKING THE PERFECT SALAD
Raymond Blanc offers this advice:
Use young, small leaves - not so young they don't have any flavour, but not so old they are coarse. "You want a leaf that you can chew, that gives you a sensuous feeling."
Wash a leaf at a time in a bowl of cold water, rinsing it for two seconds, shaking it dry. Replenish the bowl with fresh water often, since tiny pieces of grit drop to the bottom. Be careful how you dry the leaves. You can cover them with clingfilm, and keep in the salad compartment of the fridge. But Raymond Blanc prefers to prepare salads half an hour before eating.
Cut, don't tear, the salad leaves into mouthfuls, not too big, not too small. If you tear the leaves the edges oxidise and go brown. Put the leaves in the bowl but do not toss with dressing until you're ready to eat - the acid will "cook" the leaves.
The dressing: he uses four tablespoons of extra virgin oil to one of balsamic vinegar, a few drops of lemon juice, a pinch of sugar, salt and pepper. "My mother's vinaigrette is very good, too. Four tablespoons sunflower or grapeseed oil to one of good white (or red) wine vinegar, a small tablespoon of Dijon (or French) mustard, a shallot chopped fine, a hint of chopped tarragon, chives, salt and pepper." If you like the idea of heavy designer oils, like walnut or hazelnut, don't use them undiluted. Mix them one part to three of a tasteless oil.
GROWING YOUR OWN
The best source of esoteric salad seeds is Suffolk Herbs. Their seed selections were made by gardener and writer Joy Larkcom, who pioneered growing new salad varieties over 20 years ago. Her newest book, Oriental Vegetables (John Murray pounds 16.95) lists many of the now-popular varieties of salad leaf.
An instant salad mix for non- gardeners might be mixed packets, one each of oriental saladini, miscuglio (mixed chicories and radicchio), misticanza (mixed salad leaves), plus Little Gem and Tom Thumb. Mention the Independent on Sunday to get all five packets for pounds 4, plus a free catalogue. To order by mail order, write to: Suffolk Herbs, Monks Farm, Coggeshall Road, Kelvedon, Essex CO5 9PG.Reuse content