Magazine article The Spectator

Rocket Relaunched

Magazine article The Spectator

Rocket Relaunched

Article excerpt

We have been cutting wild chives by the river here since before Christmas. They were under water again last week, but don't seem to have suffered at all. Nor does the rocket - just about the only thing still surviving in my vegetable patch - which has emerged from the recent snow with its flavour unimpaired. Having sown the seed in September, we expect to go on gathering rocket leaves for another couple of months. And I think it tastes better in winter.

When rocket is so easy to grow, it amazes me that it can be so expensive to buy, especially at this time of year when it is thought, wrongly, to be `out of season'. The reason, of course, is that rocket is fashionable; it was unquestionably the salad herb of the 1990s. Extraordinary to recall that, when Arabella Boxer published her Garden Cookbook in 1974, she wrote: 'I have been unable to find a nursery garden in England who stock the seed.' Now, whether in garden centre, supermarket or restaurant, it is hard to avoid the stuff.

While it is a native of southern Europe, rocket was known and used in England in the 16th century. It was certainly one of the ingredients of the oddly named, and possibly unappetising, salmagundi, a Tudor dish of cold chicken or meat with hard-boiled eggs, anchovies, onions, almonds and grapes. Wild rocket, which has spikier leaves and is also called hedge mustard, apparently spread rapidly among the ruins of London after the Great Fire, and may have provided some nourishment for those who survived. London seedsmen such as Edward Fuller in the Strand were selling rocket at the end of that century; by 1750, however, a garden dictionary was commenting that rocket `was formerly very much cultivated in Gardens as a Sallad-- Herb, but at present is very little us'd'. It remained out of fashion for well over 200 years. Look in the index of Mrs Becton, or Constance Spry, or the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book and you will find no rocket. (There is a recipe for rocket cake, but this involves making a chocolate Swiss roll for a children's party to resemble something about to go into space.)

The French and Italians continued to eat rocket throughout the last century; so did the Americans, who call it arugula, after its Latin name, eruca sativa. …

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