"DO YOU KNOW what 'Feld Salat' is?" the letter from Nantucket inquired. "We ate and loved this salad green in Hamburg, where it was available only in cold weather. It is a small leaf, one-and-one-half to two inches long, elongated oval and just delicious, nutty and mild. I would like to grow it here, but have never seen anything like it in the seed catalogue."
Some readers' queries pose difficult problems, but not this one. On the day when it arrived we were having feldsalat at lunch, except that, being in France, we called it mache. I was able to write her that the plant which interested her was, in English, corn salad or lamb's lettuce.
Three weeks later my correspondent was back again.
"I wrote to Burpee's and got back a card giving the Latin name for lamb's lettuce (and the information) that they had no source for this lettuce. So I am destined to never again eat Feld Salat unless I get to Europe again."
She was in the same situation as Pauline Avery Crawford, who may have had lamb's lettuce in mind when she wrote a paean of praise for the United States which, however, ended on a dissident note:
America's God's country but
We had to pen this ballad
To say we'd chance a trip to France
To eat a proper salad.
In any case, it was lamb's lettuce which impressed Carl Hartman, an Associated Press correspondent in Germany when I met him in 1966 at Baden-Baden, where we were both covering a meeting of the Common Market finance ministers. He had shifted to Belgium when he surfaced again in 1973 to write me:
"If you should ever be at a loss for subject matter -- which seems unlikely -- I should appreciate seeing the result of some profound research into my favorite salad, mache. It seems to have a variety of names -- salade a ble in Belgium, Feldsalat (I think) in northern Germany and Vogel Salat in Austria."
Another American vote for this plant was cast by the late William Wallace Irwin, who had risen from presiding over a cowboy chuck wagon to maintaining a gourmet table in Paris when he was secretary of the American Chamber of Commerce there before the war, and gave, in "The Garrulous Gourmet," meticulous directions for preparing his "favorite winter salad of the substantial type that is practically unknown among the barbarous races that live outside (France's) borders." This restricts the habitat of lamb's lettuce, and its fanciers, a little too narrowly. It is a plant appreciated in many parts of western Europe.
These American reactions to the charm of lamb's lettuce suggests that a market for its seeds could easily be developed in America, and if Burpee's or any other seed company wants to try it, the company is welcome to whet the appetites of prospective customers by quoting any laudatory remarks made about it here. I would suggest also to any such enterprising company that it acquire seeds of the round-leaf variety (mache ronde) developed especially for the Paris market, the best I have ever tasted. I fear I shall not encourage the seed companies, however, if I add that the best form of this best variety of this best salad, the one we eat at my home, is wild. We pick it in the fields early in the spring, before it has occurred to anyone to spray the fields with pesticides, which add nothing either to the flavor or the healthiness of lamb's lettuce.
Flavor is the most obvious merit of this "very tender and very tasty" salad, as Alexandre Dumas described it, but healthiness, though unperceived, is not far behind. Lamb's lettuce is sweet -- not sugar-sweet, but hazlenut-sweet; one of its numerous popular names in French is doucette (sweetie?), echoed in Italian by colcetta. On the plate it looks like watercress and in the salad bowl can be treated like dandelion greens, but it lacks the pepperiness of cress and the bitterness of dandelions. It has a richness, almost a meatiness, which seems curious in a salad plant, and justifies Irwin's description of it as "substantial" and my Nantucket correspondent's "nutty." This quality made it a special favorite in the lean days of Lent, when it appeared to be a heartier substitute for forbidden foods than other similar vegetables, which is why in French it is also called monk's salad or canon's salad. This characteristic is most striking in the wild plant, and cultivated varieties compared with it are insipid; but almost every other salad is insipid in comparison with even the most insipid lamb's lettuce.
After wild mache, the second best is the kind you will get from your own garden if you can find the seed. Where this plant is grown commercially, the next best is that which is cultivated outdoors, in the open fields it likes to frequent when left to its own devices. The least tasty (though the prettiest) is that raised in hothouses, which can provide this salad virtually all year 'round.
Inferior to other types of lamb's lettuce though it may be, I had assumed that it was the hothouse salad which had aroused Hartman's enthusiasm, for he called it a winter salad (and so did my Nantucket correspondent). The Dictionnaire de l'Academie des Gastronomes calls it a winter salad too, while the Encyclopedie Gastronomique Larousse says "it is found on the markets from the end of summer to the beginning of winter." For me, it was a harbinger of spring, the earliest salad plant of the year; on my own table in Paris we eat it especially from the middle of March to the middle of April. Alexandre Dumas in the last century and Robert J. Courtine, gastronomic editor of the Paris daily, Le Monde, in this one, both report that the best season for mache is the spring. On investigation, I discover that lamb's lettuce is a two-season salad. You plant the seeds anywhere from April to September, and when the crisp, frosty days of autumn arrive you can harvest a first crop; in the spring the plant takes on renewed vigor, and you can gather it again, enriched, it seems to me, for its winter rest under a blanket of snow.
The sweet flavor of lamb's lettuce is in harmony with a mildness of character which should recommend it to sufferers from ulcers or other digestive disorders which impose a bland diet. For such unfortunates, getting enough vitamins in one's daily intake poses a problem; many vitamin-rich foods stimulate the stomach instead of soothing it. Lamb's lettuce, on the contrary, is the most digestible of salads. Like other salad plants it is generously provided with vitamins and mineral salts, and like them also it has a mild laxative effect. But this is not produced by irritating the stomach into activity, as is the case for many laxatives. Lamb's lettuce is one of the vegetables which, eaten raw, can be most easily tolerated by persons with delicate digestions, though medieval physicians probably went too far when they recommended it "to calm the ardors of fever."
In my home we eat lamb's lettuce by itself, with the classic French salad dressing of olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper (no mustard), in accord with the classic French practice, in which mixed salads are rare. Some cooks do combine it with other leafy salad plants, but it seems to me an error to dilute the sweetest and most subtle of salads with coarser sorts. There is one classic companion for lamb's lettuce, however -- beets. Courtine suggests boiled beets, diced; Irwin prefers baked beets, sliced very thin, explaining that baked beets retain more flavor. I have never tried it, since I no longer have a vegetable garden at my disposal, but I should think that the tiny beets one pulls up at the first thinning, leaves and all, should go admirably with lamb's lettuce, as they do with dandelion greens. Almost anything which is good with dandelions is likely to be good also with lamb's lettuce -- like small bits of bacon, added hot just before serving.
Dumas suggested mixing mache with celery, endive or "white chicory" (could he have meant witloof?); all of them sound to me like gastronomic mistakes. The Dictionnaire des Gastronomes says that "it would be most appropriate to heighten the taste either by spicy condiments or by serving it with dishes of strong flavor -- like Italian tuna, anchovies, etc." -- which is worse than a gastronomic mistake, more of a gastronomic monstrosity. Having selected a salad whose character is modest, subtle, seductive and caressing, why would you want to assault it with brutal assertive flavors that would annul your reason for choosing it in the first place? Other writers suggest using it as a spinach substitute, limply boiled. This strikes me as sacrilege.
In America, and perhaps soon in Europe too, if you want to enjoy lamb's lettuce you will probably have to raise your own. In France and Italy, small local markets to which farmers bring their produce and frequently sell it themselves still exist, but they are gradually being replaced by supermarkets, which would rather not bother about relatively unprofitable items like lamb's lettuce. Picking it, to begin with, involves labor costs which nowadays cannot easily be absorbed by a product sold in small quantities (half a pound will supply an average family's needs). It is fussy to handle and risks causing loss through spoilage, for it is quite perishable. This last is one of its two chief disadvantages even if you grow it yourself. It doesn't stay fresh long, so you should not pick more than you can consume within two days (you want it garden fresh, when it is at its superb best).
Its second disadvantage is the difficulty of ridding it of sand, which its tightly clustered ground-sweeping leaves pick up and tuck deeply into their interstices. Wash it under a strong jet of water, spreading the stems apart as you do so; even then you may from time to time feel a certain grittiness under your teeth. But it is worth the trouble.
Lamb's Lettuce Seed Sources
Epicure Seeds, Avon, N. Y. lists mache a grosse graine and Cavallo Feldsalat.
Nichols Garden Nursery, Albany, Ore. lists mache and corn salad.
J. L. Hudson, P.O. Box 1058, Redwood City, Calif. 94064
J. A. Demouchaux, 827 North Kansas, Topeka, Kan. 66608