Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Green Leaves of Summer

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Green Leaves of Summer

Article excerpt

"The English salad! True emblem of lost hope, drenching skies and 'approaching depressions'." So wrote Edward Bunyard in 1937 and, 60 years on, it is tempting to agree. "How well we know those limp and soddened leaves, devoid of crispness, resembling a copy of the Times which has floated down from Hammersmith to Deptford."

The English salad is one of the great disappointments of the English summer. It can disappoint in so many varied and horrible ways. What one wants is something cooling, green and somewhat dignified, the culinary equivalent of cut grass. What one gets is all too often slimy or abrasive and insipid or acrid. The classic English salad bowl resembles a feast for slugs and indeed looks as if the slugs have got there first. Floppy lettuce is made even soggier by its unhappy cohabitation with quartered tomatoes, sliced cucumbers and even eye-watering onion rings. This melange is either served plain with salad cream on the side (in many ways the least offensive option) or else drowned in a far too vinegary dressing. The English still haven't learnt what Giacomo Castelvetro 400 years ago called "the Sacred Law of Salads": "plenty of salt, generous oil and little vinegar".

Instead of learning to improve, we have merely learnt self-loathing and have come to see salads as foreign specialities beyond our ken. This has made our salads even worse. You can now get unsatisfactory salades nicoises and bottled vinaigrettes all over. Supermarkets tout "Italian-style" medleys with sachets of syrupy sun-dried tomato dressing and extra-terrestrial croutons. But no one sells "English-style" salad, so far as I am aware.

This is rather sad, not least because as a nation of gardeners, the English ought to make the best salads in the world. In 1664, the diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) published a salad calendar, still used in some kitchen gardens - a planting scheme designed to yield green leaves in every month of the year. …

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