Sadly a “British Salad” all too often conjures up images of flabby tomatoes, pickled beetroot, a limp lettuce leaf and Salad Cream. We have learned to love salad again, but it is foreign food cultures rather than our own that have shown us what it is all about. I think the time has now come for us to re-invent the British Salad – based on fresh home-grown ingredients. It’s not that I have anything against them per se, but I am getting rather bored with peppers finding their way into every salad! The starting point ought always to be the freshest, and therefore local, ingredients.
Our climate has a lot to do with our lack of confidence when producing a dish from cold ingredients. It doesn’t produce wonderful tomatoes like those that taste of the sun – no matter what British tomato growers would have us believe. Our climate also means that we have fewer days that suggest a salad is exactly what is called for. Yet despite these setbacks, a British salad can be a wondrous and delicious thing and in fact, if we dig back further into our past, plenty of examples can be found.
The word salad is derived from the Latin Sal (salt) which yielded salata meaning salted things, such as the raw vegetables eaten in classical times with a dressing of oil, vinegar or salt. Salads (sallets) were first recorded in England in 1390 in The Forme of Cury written by the cooks to Richard II. At this time salads comprised green leaves and herbs sometimes with flowers, onions or fennel, dressed with “rawe oil, vinegar and salt”. Later, at least in England, fruits such as oranges and lemons were added. During the glory days of English cooking in the 17th and 18th centuries, many more salad dishes were recorded. In 1685 Robert May gave 14 Grand Sallat recipes these were very much a visual composition designed as a centre piece and with a multitude of ingredients including meat or fish– Salamagundie is one such, based on chicken, which would make an impressive lunch dish today – just the thing for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. In 1699 the first book dedicated to the subject of salads, Aceteria: A discourse of sallets, was written by the famous diarist and gardener, John Evelyn. In addition to Grand Sallats there were also Preserved Sallats (mainly using vinegar as in pickled cucumbers, samphire, purslane or broom; or flowers preserved with vinegar, e.g. violets, primroses and cowslips) and Boiled Sallats (e.g. cooked spinach).
John Evelyn’s Aceteria is still an important work on the subject of salads. It begins with a list of 73 herb and vegetable ingredients that could be used in a salad (no fruits, other than orange, lemon and melon were included). The characteristics and virtues of each were discussed. I have included the list at the foot of this article just to remind us of what a wide range of ingredients can be grown here and how limited, even with the imported supplements, out choice has now become. The book also includes the first prototype recipe for vinaigrette, a dressing he named Oxoleon:
“Take of clear and perfectly good oyl three parts, of the sharpest vinegar, lemon or juice of orange one part and thereone let steep some slices of horseradish and pepper”
The inclusion of mustard, hard-boiled egg yolks, and milk or cream in dressings can be traced back to the 17th century although it was not until 1914 that H J Heinz and Co invented Salad Cream. When they tried to discontinue it in 1999, there was such an outcry that the product was granted a reprieve. Containing no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives it perhaps doesn’t deserve to be condemned as junk food. Of course, the French sneered at it, although in truth they make something rather similar called mayonnaise charcutière (pork butcher’s mayonnaise). Both dressings are more economical than mayonnaise, cooked and designed to keep. If you want to try making your own I have included the recipe here:
The Art of Composing a Salad
Even though no cooking, as defined by the application of heat, is involved, composing a pleasing salad is a real mark of a cook’s skills. A good salad should excite all of the senses so when choosing the ingredients it is worth considering them in relation to the senses:
Consider the colour, which doesn’t necessarily mean there has to be more than one – a green salad can look extremely appetising, but there are several optional ingredients that boost the visual appeal. For example, you might use flowers – the flowers of some herbs such as chives not only taste good but look good too.
Whilst you may not actually smell them from a distance, herbs are intensely aromatic and so the pleasure in eating them is not experiences not solely through taste.
When eating we talk more of texture than of touch, since we rarely actually eat with our hands. But a variation in texture is important. Never dress a salad with oil until the last moment or it will go slimy. Include some crunch either through crisp salad leaves or other crisp ingredients such as peppers, radish, raw peas (whole sugar snap peas or mangetout become crisper if refrigerated for a while first), seeds and nuts, croutons etc.
The crisp ingredients will also provide a gently audible crunch.
Of course it must taste good, but we can break this sense down further into the key taste areas to ensure they are all covered:
Sweet – e.g. raw peas, grated carrot, beetroot
Sour – partially provided in the salad dressing via vinegar or lemon juice
Salt – preserved foods like capers and anchovies can provide an intense hit of saltiness
Bitter – usually provided by one or more of the leaves such as Rocket.
Umami – crisp pieces of bacon, aged balsamic vinegar, parmesan shavings
For more inspiration about potential ingredients take a look at the list below, which shows what we were eating in salads back in 1699:
John Evelyn’s Salad Ingredients
Alexanders; Artichoke; Basil; Balm (lemon – Melissa); Beet (root and stems); Blite (English Mercury/All-good); Borage; Brooklime; Bugloss; Buds (including caper, ash-keys, broom buds); Cabbage (including cauliflower and seakale); Cardoon; Carrots; Chervil; Clary; Clavers; Corn-sallet; Cowslips; Cresses (includes watercress and nasturtiums); Cucumber; Daisy; Dandelion; Dock; Earth-nuts; Elder; Endive; Fennel; Flowers (a long list many of them herbs); Garlic, Goats Beard; Hops, Hyssop; Jack-by-the-Hedge; Leeks; Lettuce (a long list of types); Lemon; Mallow; Melon; Mint; Mushrooms; Mustard (seed and leaf); Nettles; Onion ( a list including chives and shallots); Orach; Orange; Parsnip; Peas; Peppers (sweet and hot); Parsley; Pimpernel (Salad Burnet); Purslane; Radish; Rampion; Rocket; Rosemary; Sage; Samphire; Scallions; Scurvey-grass; Sellery (celery); Skirrits; Sorrel; Sow-thistle; Sparagus (Asparagus); Spinach; Succory (a wild chicory leaf); Tansy, Tarragon; Thistle; Trick-Madame; Turnip; Vine; Viper-grass (Scorzonera/Salsify); Wood Sorrel.
When to eat Salad
There are no hard and fast rules here – just observations. The British have tended to eat salad as a main course. Grand Sallats such as Salamagundy are perfect examples of this way of eating, even if they were not always quite as “Grand”. Today, if a salad is to be a main course, it tends to be eaten more often at lunch time than in the evening and is more popular with women than men – the mainstay of Ladies who Lunch! We have also adopted the custom of serving side salads. They come with our main course instead of vegetables. In France a salad is still served pretty much every day but the traditional place for it within the meal is after the main course, where it serves as a palate cleanser before the cheese. I also love serving cheese with a salad, not as a lunch main course, or even a starter, although both are possibilities, but after the main course and before dessert in a formal meal. The recipe for Spinach and Goat’s cheese Salad with Hazelnuts and Honey Dressing is a good example of this type of salad and would be suitable for pairing with any young cheese including the British “Crumblies”, such as Cheshire, Wensleydale and Caerphilly, which are at their best at this time of year.
Homemade Salad Cream
Spinach and Goats Cheese Salad with Hazelnuts and a Honey Dressing