Wednesday, 11 July 2012


Inspired today by an entry on Days on the Claise to look a little further into the various species of salad green that most English-speaking people refer to as "lettuce" - a leafy, sometimes slightly bitter green vegetable used mainly raw in green salads, but sometimes cooked. I used to wonder at school what happened to the hearts as I chomped my way through lunchtime sheets of clammy green raincoat - that was before the days of supermarkets and their pristine displays of hearts. It's no consolation to find out that the outer leaves are even richer in beta-carotene than the heart.


Westerners waste up to 50% of the food they buy and a lot of that is lettuce, with good intentions turning rapidly into brown sludge. Every year, according to Green Oak Buzz, 860,000 tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables, £1.4 million worth, goes to waste in the UK... By contrast, French salades from the market keep nearly as well as home-grown, and the coarsest outer leaves are snapped up by the chickens, or vanish into the compost heap.

There are three members of the aster family widely eaten as salade.  All three have been part of the human diet since at least the times of the Pharaohs and probably much longer.

Lettuce (lactuca sativa), or laitue, is a quick-growing annual with yellowish green flowers. It comes as roundhead or cabbage lettuce, crisphead or Batavia (iceberg), cos (aka romaine) and loose-leaf (cut-and-come-again) types and many old French varieties are available mail-order e.g. from Simpsons Seeds in the UK or Baumaux in France. We grow a red-leafed mini-cos variety called Pandero, a Gardening Which 'best buy' for flavour and all-round quality. We are just about to sow some more while the maximum daytime temperature is below 25C, because high temperatures deter germination in lettuces.

In ancient Egypt, lettuce was sacred to the fertility god Min and considered to be a powerful aphrodisiac. A nice row of cos-type lettuces features on an Egyptian wall relief dating back to about 4500 BCE. Min has obviously sampled his own produce!

The Romans, by contrast, believed that lettuce promoted morality, temperance and chastity!

Endive (Cichorium endivia) is an annual or biennial with deeply cut leaves. It is sometimes called curly endive and frisée in the UK and is known in the USA as Chicory and in France as chicorée frisée. Beware - there are also frizzy lettuce varieties such as Salad Bowl. On the market stall it is difficult to distinguish curly endive from lettuce just by looking at it. I find endive rather tough going, personally, and I'll stick with Salad Bowl.

The flowers of a chicory that was part of a salad mix.
Knowing what to expect when it bolted, we left it to flower.
It was a good three weeks ahead of the wild chicory that is now in flower all over the place.

Then there's chicory, cichorium intybus, a blue-flowered European native perennial known in France as endive and often sold as blanched buds called chicons or witloof. Easy to remember, yes? Radicchio is an Italian chicory with many colourful varieties. Radicchio and frisée frequently turn up in supermarket mixed salads, probably because they do not crush as easily as the more tender lettuces. Chicory is one of the "bitter herbs" that form part of the Passover meal.


Susan said...

Living as I do with a salad dodger, I need a small mild crisp lettuce that will keep for a week in the fridge.

Pollygarter said...

Pandero or Little Gem will do you nicely - both mini-cos type. I just sow ten seeds at a time in modules and plant them out when they're big enough.