"...Mezclun mix, $5.99/lb. this week at A & P!"
How times have changed. Or should that be, what goes around comes around? Twenty years ago the average customer would have angrily criticized the assortment of mixed greens on his plate as weeds and grass clippings, before sending it back to the kitchen to be replaced with his beloved iceberg lettuce and hothouse tomatoes. Now what's touted as "mezclun mix" (the new "in" assortment of leaf lettuces mixed with arugula, spinach, escarole, and other colorful greens of various shapes) can be found in many restaurants across the country, and it's even offered (for an outrageous price) at the local supermarket. Yet this so-called "new" salad is typical of some of the green salads served in England in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The English people of the 16th and 17th centuries were, in fact, far more adventurous in their combinations of salad ingredients than we are today -- carrots of various colors (except orange), skirrets, purslane, samphire, marigold (Calendula), primrose, violets, cowslips, clove-gillyflowers, borage, and so many more, all found their way into the sallats of the time. Gerard's Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (1633) gives many Elizabethan-era serving suggestions and recipes for herbs and fruits too numerous to list here. (To see my new page listing these culinary gleanings, click here.)
Sallats were served hot or cold. They could be as simple as lemons sliced and sprinkled with sugar, or they could be compounded of many herbs, fruits, nuts, sugar and spice. Flowers were often used; these could be candied for garnishes, pickled, or eaten raw. An ingenious compound sallat found in Markham's The English Hus-wife says to take preserved flowers, all of a single color, and to fashion the shape of a flower out of them, using purslane stalks for the flower's "stalk", and sliced cucumber for the "leaves".
According to Markham, a typical "humble" feast (of 96 dishes!) would have included sixteen roasts and "made" dishes for each of three courses, plus an equal number of hot and cold sallats, egg dishes and assorted "devised" pastes. The meats, sallats, and sweets were all served together, piled high on the table in order to awe the guests with the abundance and variety presented.
The Elizabethan age was one of exploration, when new lands, plants, and animals were being discovered by Europeans. Each new edible discovery was welcomed by an upper-class eager for novelties, and the chance to show-off for their friends. New plants were compared with what was already known, and were prepared in similar manners. So you will find, for example, the Sweet Potato (originally brought from the Americas) eaten as a sop in wine, while the Jerusalem Artichoke was "dressed in diuers waies; some boile them in water, and after stew them with sacke and butter, adding a little Ginger: others bake them in pies, putting Marrow, Dates, Ginger, Raisons of the Sun, Sacke."
The Red Beet (the type with the large red root) was a relative late-comer to England, and was apparently unknown in English kitchens in 1597, when Gerard wrote: "The greater red Beet or Roman Beet, boyled and eaten with oyle, vineger and pepper, is a most excellent and delicate sallad: but what might be made of the red and beautifull root (which is to be preferred before the leaues, as well in beauty as in goodnesse) I refer vnto the curious and cunning cooke, who no doubt when he hath had the view thereof, and is assured that it is both good and wholesome, will make thereof many and diuers dishes, both faire and good." By 1660 Gerard's prediction had come true, and the red beet had been given a prime place in English sallats. This beautiful and simple recipe from Robert May's The Accomplisht Cook makes for a delightful springtime salad:
A Grand Sallet of Beets, Currants and Greens Take the youngest and smallest leaves of spinage, the smallest also of sorrel, well washed currans, and red beets round the center being finely carved, oyl and vinegar, and the dish garnished with lemon and beets.
2 cups fresh spinach, washed 2 cups sorrel leaves, washed 1/2 cup currants 4 or 5 beets, cooked, peeled and sliced 1 lemon, sliced oil and red wine vinegar to taste
Tear the spinach and sorrel into a large bowl. Add the currants, oil, and vinegar, and toss to mix thoroughly. Using a knife or small cookie cutters, cut a few of the beet slices into decorative shapes. Immediately before service, place these in the center of the salad. Arrange the remaining beets and lemon slices around the edge of the bowl. Serve cold.
Sources and Suggestions for Further Reading:
Gerard, John. The Herball or Generall Hi torie of Plants. London, 1633. Thomas Johnson, ed. Rpt. Dover Publications, Inc. 1975. This is the complete 1633 edition as edited by Thomas Johnson.
Leggatt, Jenny. Cooking With Flowers. Ballantine Books. New York, 1987.
Lorwin, Madge. Dining with William Shakespeare. Atheneum. New York, 1976.
Mac Nicol, Mary. Flower Cookery, the Art of Cooking with Flowers. Fleet Press Corp. New York, 1967.
Markham, Gervase. The English Hus-wife, Contayning The inward and outward vertues which ought to be in a compleat woman; As, her skill in Physicke, Cookery, Banqueting-stuffe, Distillation, Perfumes, Wooll, Hemp, Flax, Dayries, Brewing, Baking, and all other things belonging to an houshould. Iohn Beale. London, 1615. (The English Housewife, collated and edited by Michael R. Best, contains the 1615, 1623, and 1631 editions. Queen's Univ. Press. Kingston, 1986.)
May, Robert. The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mystery of Cookery. Printed by N. Brooke for T. Archer. 1660.
See http:/ /newcrop.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/proceedings1993/v2-528.html for an interesting article entitled "New Directions in Salad Crops: New Forms, New Tools, and Old Philosophy", by Edward J. Ryder and William Waycott.