Winner of the Michael Smith Award for work on British
food, Guild of Food Writers, 2011.
As summer deepens across the land, danger lies in wait for
the unwary gastronome – the ambush of an ill-made salad - for it is at this
time of year that salad reigns supreme on British tables.
No meal is complete without a bowl of
verdant leaves or basil-strewn tomatoes.
Perfectly made, it’s sublime,
at its worst, the salad is a dish to dread.
As a result, British cooks and gourmets alike have
dedicated much ink to devising the perfect salad.
In 1699 John Evelyn, tackled the subject in his book
A Discourse of Sallets.
He writes: ‘Every plant should come in
to bear its part, without being over-power’d by some herb of a stronger taste,
so as to endanger the native sapor and vertue of the rest; but fall into their
places, like the notes in music, in which there should be nothing harsh or
Evelyn’s book remains a beacon of enlightenment. While at
a barbecue, eating a travesty of a salad - canned sweetcorn, kidney beans,
green beans and mushrooms tossed in ready-made dressing – I wonder what my
hosts would have made of his suggestions, such as combining nasturtium flowers
with Roman lettuces and various cresses.
Purslane, pickled ash keys, young pea pods, fennel and wood sorrel hint
at the many delicacies he suggests.
Over the centuries, cooks have railed against over-dressed,
limp, vinegary salads, and advised against using anything but the freshest and
youngest salad leaves and vegetables.
Much energy has been dedicated to perfecting dressings, one of which is
English salad sauce.
This is not
to be confused with ready-made salad cream - a horror that should be left in a
time capsule with Spam.
made salad sauce dates back to Evelyn’s time.
It’s made by blending hard boiled egg yolks with vinegar,
cream, olive oil and mustard and can be surprisingly good, although I have my
Recipe for Salad (1839) a
poem that Sydney Smith sent to Lady Holland and that includes sieved
Of course, life has improved since Elizabeth David wrote
Summer Cooking (1955): ‘How one
learns to dread the season for salads in England.’ In a bid to counteract such
horrors as soggy lettuce, baked beans and synthetic dressings, she advocates
fresh produce, sensitively prepared and lightly dressed at the last minute with
a good olive oil and a little lemon juice.
Today, we have a wonderful array of salad ingredients to
play with, from verjuice and nutty flavoured cold-pressed rapeseed oil to
peppery rocket and red mizuna leaves. It’s hard to go wrong if you follow the
advice of David and Evelyn. Yet for ultimate salad perfection, consider the
taste, texture and colour of your proposed medley.
For ultimate salad perfection, consider the taste, texture
and colour of your proposed medley. Seek the right balance between the five
tastes of sweet, sour, salt, bitter and savoury.
Usually, I take the taste of the dominant ingredient and
consider what would enhance it - for example, the lemony acidity of fresh
goat’s cheese intensifies the sweetness of a beetroot salad, just as bitter
olives add a note of sophistication to a sweet roasted-pepper salad.
Then, consider its ‘mouth-feel’.
Ideally, the dominant food texture
should be quite similar, although a little textural contrast doesn’t go amiss.
Thus, crispy-bacon pieces will add an element of surprise to a soft-textured
lettuce, avocado and prawn salad.
Lastly, make sure that it looks gorgeous. A smoked-salmon and chicory
salad, for instance, is transformed by a splash of
and a scattering of chive flowers.
Summer on a plate.