Back to the future

FOOR Traditional vegetables are making a comeback Winter purslane, also called claytonia, has leaves surrounding the flower stalk like a lily pad on a pond Photograph by Patrice de Villiers
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Vegetables go in and out of fashion with little in the way of rhyme or reason or relevance to how good they taste. Here are four that have seen greater glory and are ready for a comeback.

Purslane

"A mischievous weed, eaten by Frenchmen and pigs when they can get nothing else." How very unfair of Mr Cobbett writing in 1833. Frenchmen still enjoy it, pigs, I feel, it would be wasted on, as for Englishmen, I am not sure why they do not eat it more often.

We are at the end of the season for winter purslane (pictured above), also called claytonia, which has leaves surrounding the flower stalk like a lily pad on a pond. This is prize salad material: "My favourite winter salad plant," says Joy Larkcom in The Salad Garden.

I like claytonia best for the texture of its wonderfully succulent and tender leaves. The same is also true for the green and golden summer purslane. This has tongue-shaped leaves ranged up its stalk and is coming into season soon.

Purslane, too, was pickled in days gone by. As Giacomo Castelvetro, writing in the 17th century, said: "Purslane is eaten a lot as a salad on its own, or with other herbs; we always add pepper and finely chopped onion to counteract its coldness." This, I think, would work very well. Samphire

How fearful

And dizzy 'tis to cast one's eyes so low!

The crows and choughs that wing the midway air

Show scarce so gross as beetles; half-way down

hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!

Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.

The fishermen that walk upon the beach

Appear like mice. - King Lear

This is not a reference to the plump and brackish fronds we so fondly eat with fish. This was rock samphire, crithmum maritimum, a herb found hanging in tassels on cliffs and rocks that was also grown as a potage herb in the 17th century, though it was more popular in France than in England.

Marsh samphire, salicornia europaea, is the one we have rediscovered. This is a clever plant that has adapted well to the salt marshes and mud flats where it grows. Its green leaves, sprayed and washed with salty waters, are rounded and succulent, giving it the appearance of a marine cactus.

Samphire, also known as glasswort, contains a lot of soda, and its use in the making of glass and soap goes back to biblical times. And glasswort ashes, called barilla, were specially imported from the Mediterranean for the process.

I have not heard of it being farmed in this country, but I have tasted cultivated samphire from South America and very much hope that's where it stays. Due to increasing demand, the samphire season gets earlier and earlier: it is traditionally ready for picking on the longest day, but this year, it moved forward to about mid-April.

Samphire used to be a popular pickle, though it was swamped in vinegar and overcooked. Better to pluck the tender fronds and blanch them for 30 seconds. Assuming they are young, that is, and have been washed by every tide.

Horseradish

"Take horseradish, whilst newly drawn out of the earth, otherwise laid to steep in water a competent time; then grate it on a grater which has no bottom, that so it may pass thro', like a mucilage, into a dish or earthen ware: this temper'd with vinegar, in which a little sugar has been dissolved, you have a sauce supplying mustard to the mallet, and serving likewise for any dish besides." - "Acetaria, A Discourse of Sallets 1699", by John Evelyn

I can't imagine the persistence of the first person who peeled a horseradish root to reveal the hard, fibrous core within, and then deduced that, finely grated and mixed into cream, it would so perfectly serve smoked trout or a slice of roast beef.

The nasal intensity as you grate it can be overpowering. Far worse than onions, its mustardy mist blankets the senses.

But once you have dried your eyes, preparing the condiment is easy. Simply mix it into whipped cream and sharpen with a few drops of lemon juice. I like it best spooned over hot smoked haddock so it melts and falls in with the buttery juices, and then eaten with a few spicy green leaves to help mop it up. And be warned, the jars bear no resemblance to the real thing.

Lovage

Truffles in coriander wine sauce: peeled truffles (or mushrooms), 14 tsp ground pepper, 1 tsp lovage seed, 12 tsp coriander, pinch of rue, 12 cup beefstock, 12 cup red wine and 2 tsp olive oil or butter. In a mortar, grind together pepper, lovage, coriander, and rue. Blend with stock, wine, and olive oil or butter. Bring to the boil then simmer over a low heat. Lightly cook whole truffles or mushrooms in this sauce, and serve together - "The Roman Cookery of Apicius", by John Edwards.

The importance of lovage in Roman times was second only to pepper. In those days, the seeds, roots and leaves were all used to scent sauces, forcemeats, salted fish and legumes.

I rely on gardener friends for the occasional young, green shoots. If you are planning to grow it, you need only one bush in the garden as it reaches astounding dimensions. But only the youngest and most tender shoots are good for eating. Frances Smith of Appledore Salads says it is at its best when still pink and just sprung from the earth.

The leaf stalks were once commonly candied with angelica, and a teaspoon of seeds steeped in brandy and sweetened with sugar is still used in the West Country as an aid for digestion.

It has a powerful flavour, so wilting it in butter first is a good idea. It is particularly good as a soup, thickened with potato and enriched with cream. More unusually, I have a great fondness for lovage syllabub. Somehow, the lemon juice and sugar counter its strength

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