“My salad days. When I was green in judgment, cold in blood.” Anthony & Cleopatra, William Shakespeare.
Salads in the 50s meant lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers with the occasional spring onion thrown in. Once a week, nursery tea was a salad accompanied by tinned pilchards or tinned pink salmon – red salmon was reserved for special occasions. Sardines, well sardines as Fiona’s post describes, were to be spread on toast.
My paternal grandfather was a commercial tomato grower in Guernsey and the field adjoining his farmhouse was filled with rows of white painted greenhouses. I’d happily walk down the rows of plants brushing my hands against the leaves to get my fill of that wonderful umami smell. (Can you have an umami smell?)
Even to a nine year old, the taste of a tomato freshly picked from its vine never equalled the smell of its leaves. When we visited Gran’pere’s, Aunty Gert – his second wife and never a popular presence with my father and my uncles – served high tea in the parlour. Whole tomatoes, chunks of cucumber and leaves of limp Webb lettuce were washed and served on their separate plates accompanied by thick slices of ham and hard boiled eggs. I don’t remember if we were offered salad cream or mayonnaise but as I didn’t like either, I put as little as possible on my plate and ate my salad plain.
Gran’pere might have harrumphed under his bushy eyebrows about my lack of appetite, but his eyes were twinkly. Aunty Gert’s beady eyes however, covered by her Harry Potter spectacles, missed nothing and she sniffed if I asked for a second piece of Guernsey Gâche or Battenburg cake – both shop-bought, as was the ham. Aunty Gert didn’t like cooking.
It was therefore Cranks vegetarian restaurant in Marshall Street that first opened my eyes to the possibility of vegetables and salad in particular. It helped of course that the first Cranks opened just around the corner from Carnaby Street. It wasn’t the tourist graveyard it is today, but the epitome of swinging London, crammed with small boutiques selling ‘gear’. My friends and I couldn’t afford to buy anything but we loved looking and trying on if we dared, and then finish up at Cranks, for a plate piled high with vivid combinations of crisp chopped vegetables, mopping up the transparent dressings with nutty wholemeal rolls.
Living abroad for much of my late teens and twenties, salad became less enjoyable as, in Africa and parts of Asia, salad ingredients were limited and needed to be washed in a Milton solution – a taste that couldn’t be hidden even by the strongest of vinaigrettes.
Being far from home for long periods of time meant that the longing for standard European fare, when it was not readily available locally, became overpowering. Expatriates flocked to the French supermarket in Accra, Ghana, once the rumour mill had announced the arrival of Golden Delicious apples. That joy of the first crisp bite, apple juice running down my chin, still remains with me and I find it difficult not to have apples in the fridge even if their carbon footprints have tramped halfway across the world.
In Haiti it was the arrival of fresh chicory – the American kind – flown in from Miami that had me salivating. It had been brought over by a French restaurant owner in Petionville and he made it into a crisp chicory and walnut salad, dewy with a lemony vinaigrette. Simplicity itself. I have made it many times since, but it will never taste the same as that very first time.
But for me, the most memorable salad of all is one I found on the easternmost coast of Spain, about an hour’s drive south of the French border. Early in the years of the new Millennium, I had one of those hare-brained ideas of buying a holiday home somewhere along the southern coast of France. Combining it with a business trip to Barcelona, I picked up a car and drove in explorative hops all the way along the coast to Monaco on the eastern end of France.
As the light started to fade, two hours out of Barcelona, I made the decision to stop in Cadaques. The road to this small town, surrounded by the arid but beautiful Cap de Creus national park, was long and winding. The next day this pretty town, snuggled into the hill, begged to be explored.
Following a warren of meandering streets lined with blistering white houses that fell down the slopes, I arrived at a small crescent-shaped beach hugging an azure blue sea. The noonday sun hit 30C and the streets emptied of people as they disappeared behind closed doors for lunch and a siesta. The presence of a small restaurant was flagged, halfway up the hillside, by a couple of large green parasols. The menu was simple, dominated by local specialties of fish and rice.
Overheated, I chose the simplest of dishes, ensalada de boquerones, or Spanish anchovy salad. In that white courtyard, with a chilled glass of pale pink rosé in hand, I was presented with a plate of crisply cut lettuce wedges, spangled with a light dressing upon which a circle of long white anchovy fillets fanned out. I had never tasted fish like it – their flakes melted on my tongue with just a hint of vinegar.
I have attempted to recreate this salad on a number of occasions but it needs the warmth of sun bouncing off flagstones, a sea breeze, and a good bottle of Rosé to bring it all together. I have found the wine Sacchetto ‘blush’ Pinto Grigio from Venezia bought from ‘Naked Wines’. I have yet to find the equivalently large white anchovies. These were sourced from Amazon.
NB: After Cadaques and the adjoining village Portlligat – a tourist trap for the Casa Salvador Dali, the rest of the exploration along the coast was downhill all the way and I don’t mean literally.
Spanish Anchovy Salad: Serves two as a light lunch, preparation time 10 mins
2 heads Romaine lettuce – little Gem or Cos can be used instead
110g Boquerones, white anchovies marinated in white vinegar*
Handful of the best black olives you can find, even if they have stones in them!
Sherry or white wine vinegar
When ready to serve cut the slim wedges of lettuce with a sharp knife, arrange around a plate and sprinkle with olive oil and vinegar, then lightly season. Arrange anchovies and black olives on top. If you are feeding hungrier eaters, cooked Jersey Royal potatoes and even hard boiled eggs can be added. Serve with slices of crisp baguette.