Salad Days

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Salad using mainly ingredients purchased from the farmer’s market in Pimlico, London.

Sir John Evelyn, best known for his diary, was also a vegetarian and a fan of salads and would hopefully have approved of the salad pictured above. His 1699 book Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets enthuses over the moral and nutritious benefits of salad for men. Not for women, though. Their version of salad would need to be “Boil’d, Bak’d, Pickl’d, or otherwise disguis’d, variously accommodated by skilful Cooks, to render them grateful to the more feminine Palat”.

A century and a half later Mrs Beeton ignored that warning and clearly enjoyed a salad herself. She obsevered that ” although lettuce frequently forms the foundation of salads composed of raw materials, there are few vegetables and edible plants that may not be used for the purpose. The long list of those generally regarded as most appropriate includes artichokes, asparagus, beetroot, carrots, cauliflower, cresses, cucumbers, endive, French beans, lentils, lettuce, onions, potatoes, radishes, salsify, spinach, tomatoes, walnuts, and many other products”.

She was very keen that salad ingredients should be “young, freshly gathered, and crisp” and gives firm instructions on preparation: “Lettuce should always be torn into shreds, not cut with a knife; and it is a good plan to pour the salad dressing into the bottom of the bowl, lay the vegetables upon it, and mix vigorously at the moment of serving”.

When I was young the only sure thing about salads was that the lettuce would be green and floppy. Salad was almost exclusively eaten for Sunday tea and apart from limp lettuce, there’d be hard-boiled eggs, cucumber and tomato – all thinly sliced. There’d also be tinned salmon or ham – in our house usually luncheon meat, sometimes haslet. More exotically there was tinned potato salad which disappeared from supermarket shelves a long time ago,

No dressing as we know it today. Most people had never heard of mayonnaise for one thing, and olive oil was only sold in very small bottles from the chemist, for loosening earwax or alleviating earache. So we used salad cream. The factory produced version was probably invented in 1914 by Heinz, but lettuce leaves slathered in cream and egg sauce have long been part of the British dining experience. Eliza Acton gives a recipe for English Salad Sauce in Modern Cookery For Private Families (published 1845) and Mrs Beeton’s Household Management features a recipe for Salad Cream.

There was uproar on the internet last year when Heinz announced its proposal to remarket this venerable product as Sandwich Cream. It was claimed that few people now add this to salads, preferring to use it on sandwiches. It’s still being sold with its original name so the more cynical among us can’t help wondering whether last year’s statement was simply part of a Heinz publicity campaign to ginger up sales.

Can’t stand the stuff myself…