The green leaves of summer


"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 co-habitation 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. In 1699, aged almost 80, Evelyn followed this with Acetaria: a discourse on sallets (acetaria are raw salad plants), a marvellous celebration that every supermarket buyer should read.

Evelyn defines "sallet" as "a particular composition of certain Crude and fresh Herbs, such as usually are, or may safely be eaten with some acetous juice, oyl, salt, etc to give them a grateful gust and vehicle". His catalogue of herbs - "baulm, beet, blite, borrage, brooklime, bugloss . . . " - is diverse and he considers medical properties as well as flavours. The perfect salad should restore the "humours" of those who eat it. There should be harmony "like the notes of music" between hot (eg, rocket) and cool (eg, cucumber), bitter (eg, dandelion) and sweet (eg, chervil). This requires "skill and judgement" - talents apparently lacking in the modern makers of those plastic-packed "Continental-style" salads.

Having dealt with the "Herby ingredients", Evelyn then describes minutely how to wash and dress them. Reading his impeccably seasoned directions for mixing oil and vinegar, I was struck by how peculiar our attachment to the term "French dressing" is. Why not "English", after all?

English dressing
Go to the bottom of the garden and pick your salad; or else buy some sweet crisp lettuce, rocket, cress and sprigs of chervil. Wash and spin well. Mash two hard-boiled yolks with salt, sugar and pepper, using a wooden spoon. Slowly whisk in 100ml good olive oil and about 1tbsp wine vinegar to taste. Mustard or snipped chives can be added. Put the leaves in a china dish, add a little dressing and mix very well until glistening. Add more if needed but, says Evelyn, "it is incredible how small a quantity of oil is required".

This article first appeared in the 31 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Between two mental universes