Don’t get me wrong, I like lettuce. And rocket. I grow prodigious amounts of both, and eat most of it. It’s just that if there is none, I am never lost for salad ingredients. And when there is, I augment the tender crispness of lettuce and the bite of rocket with a host of other favourite ingredients from the garden and hedgerow.
In spring and early summer, there is a wide choice of tender green leaves. Garlic Mustard, with big heart-shaped leaves, appears early obligingly self-sown in odd corners of the garden. Mildly garlicky, with a gentle bite of mustard. Our accidental pole of a lime tree (kept as a pole because there’s no room for a tree) produces the most succulent unfurling leaves before any lettuce is ready. Young shoots of Bishopsweed transfer from the weeding bucket to the plate via a good wash. Then the Sorrel family – Common and Buckler-leaf – provide sharp, lemony, bulky leaves – shred them to mix that sharpness through the salad. Sweet Cicely for a hint of aniseed. Rampion, an edible Campanula, produces a mass of tender leaves. Claytonia, or Miners’ Lettuce, which I’ve picked right through winter from the greenhouse bed, is joined by its cousin the Pink Purslane. New leaves of Wood Sorrel, looking like clover but with delicate white flowers, are found in the woods. It’s a refreshing appetiser when nibbled on a walk. For crunchy, succulent foliage, try the long linear leaves of Bucks Horn Plantain – branched at the ends like antlers. Or the round, slightly bitter but always tender leaves of Orpine, a native Sedum whose flowers bring out bees and butterflies in late summer.
As summer progresses, I add sweetly aromatic herbs to the salad bowl, chopping them finely to disperse the subtle aroma and flavour. My favourites are Golden Marjoram, Lemon Balm and Mint – but not just any mint. One of the citrus varieties – Orange, Lime or Lemon Mint, or Basil Mint, or best of all Eau de Cologne Mint. A little goes a long way! Basil itself, of course, contributes a domineering flavour, good with tomatoes. Judicious amounts of Chervil, Summer Savory or Dill with its cucumber tones can all be added. Salad Burnet or young Borage leaves taste similar.
Yellow Primroses, Ramsons from the woods and Cornflower petals are the first edible flowers to be added; later blue comes from borage flowers. Wild Pansies, bright orange Calendula, sweet white petals from my Jacobite Rose and gaudy Nasturtiums taste as good as they look. If I can stand to sacrifice them, I’ll eat Hemerocallis (Day Lily) flowers too, and the ones from my Clove Pinks.
By now, wild strawberries are getting scattered over the salad bowl, and as summer wears towards autumn, fruit starts to dominate. Anything goes. Whole raspberries, blaeberries and whitecurrants; chopped red gooseberries; peaches and grapes from the greenhouses; brambles and elderberries and onwards till I am confronted by the autumn apple mountain – a source of material for my less frequent winter salads.
Nuts go well with apples; wild hazelnuts and walnuts from my neighbours’ tree, well-chopped. Now I will use the pickled ash keys I made in June and other preserves to spice up a winter salad. Greens come from the greenhouse – hardy winter Lamb’s Lettuce, Claytonia and hot Land Cress. Dried fruit, whether home-dried wild strawberries or conventional shop ones, I add liberally.
Salad Days may be over, but salads go on even in the depths of winter, till spring comes round again.