Lettuce used to be so simple that it could be summed up in one word: iceberg. Now we would have to add three more words: tip of the. Sometime over the past few years the lettuce section has gone beserk. This struck me last week when I became transfixed before the Fresh 'n' Ready at Sainsbury's.
This did not come entirely out of the blue as several friends lately have taken to talking about the price of bagged lettuce. (Is this normal? I'm not sure anymore.) Evidently their partners think the stuff is too expensive and that they should buy good old-fashioned heads and make their own salads. Every week they "discuss" this over the lollo rosso. My friends say it would cost a fortune to buy a head of everything in these bags. "And they don't even sell heads of frisee anyway!" exploded one down the phone. I realised we were not talking about split ends.
So, here I was in Fresh 'n' Ready, completely overwhelmed. There was herb, mixed, Caesar (croutons attached), continental, crispy green, gourmet selection. Each packet has a blurb about each leaf on the back so you know your mizuna (attractive, delicate, Japanese) from your lamb's (soft, succulent, clustered).
Leaf clusters? Mizuna? How could I have missed this? But such thrills do not come cheap. Rocket was pounds 2.23 per 100g! (Iceberg was 29p per 100g but that still seemed a bit steep considering there was a 450g head very close by for 49p). "Are you going to select something or just stare?" asked a man whom I soon realised was a former neighbour. This guy is fiftysomething, macho and very handy with the hammer - he built his own garage. So the very last thing in the world I expected him to do was to pluck a bag of herb salad (pounds 1.65 per 100g!) off the shelf. Clearly the revolution had happened without me.
"People just want to be excited by salad these days," said the lettuce man at Sainsbury's. He works with the supplier to create "leaf recipes" and says customers cannot get enough of the explanatory notes. "They are so into this that they really want to know more." It was time to act: a pounds 1.49 bag of gourmet (lollo biondi, mizuna, red chard, red mustard, rocket) winged its way into the trolley. And thank god it did because later on that day I read this in the New York Times: "First there was arugula, then radicchio, followed by mache and mesclun ... It was frisee that ousted mesclun and now mezuna, an upstart salad green from Asia with darling pointy leaves and a bitter peppery taste, has gone frisee one better." I told the children, as I unbagged the dinner, that we were very cutting edge indeed.