We live in enlightened times. Our choices of salad material are now expansive. I've planted soft-leaved stuff with fun names like Les Oreilles du Diable, or the devil's ears. I've planted endives and chicories and escaroles. I've planted mustard greens and tatsoi. I've planted radicchio, which is interestingly tricky in that some varieties don't always head up properly.
I've planted claytonia or miner's lettuce, which is named for the miner 49-ers who survived on it as smelly desperadoes panning for gold, and which grows wild in the grass at my mother-in-law's in Red Bluff, California. She never bothers to eat it. Too many other attractive greens in her part of the world.
I'm sort of in the same camp. I sow all kinds of salad material, but all I really want to eat is arugula. I love its hot flavor and happily eat bowl after bowl all by myself all summer long. And since arugula is arguably the easiest of all crops–scatter seed on top of the soil every few weeks and there you go–I tend to have enough arugula to be able ignore whatever else is happening on the greens front.
One of the salads that I've sown and forgotten about is mâche or corn salad. It forms pretty little rosettes almost too small to bother with, and I never found the flavor terribly interesting.
In her excellent encyclopedia Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, Elizabeth Schneider talks about a general sense of disappointment with American mâche.
As a shopper with nationalist preferences, I would like to recommend the American product. But so far, imports have been superior: more succulent, complex, with a surprising floral flavor and a hint of black truffle. Domestic corn salad that I have sampled has been too small and underdeveloped in flavor; it looks charming and has a pleasing texture, but is bland.
That was my feeling, too. A green not really worth thinking about.
But for the last few years, the mâche I planted in some forgotten spring has been seeding itself around my garden, mainly in between some everbearing strawberries, where it's survived because it's been out of my way.
This year, I suddenly paid attention. First of all, mâche was the first edible thing in the garden, right there looking perky as soon as the snow retreated. Second, my mâche tastes amazing, like nothing I remember from previous crops. Pinch off a rosette and pop it in and your mouth fills with perfume. It's more like eating Chanel Coco than a salad green.
It's still a ridiculous crop in the sense that you'd have to cut an acre of this short stuff to make a single salad. My friend Martha, who was a chef for years, informs me that even in France, where everybody eats it all the time, mâche is really expensive. But it clearly is worth having as an addition to other greens. In her mâche entry, Elizabeth Schneider includes a recipe for a salad of mâche, Belgian endive, walnuts, and violets. Sounds like a properly exquisite treatment for an exquisite little green.
As for why my mâche suddenly tastes so amazing, it could just be the weather–or it could be that speedy evolution seed experts talk about in the vegetable garden. Of course, since I've paid no attention to mâche, I've selected for nothing. But it's possible that the perfumiest of my plants were the ones that went to seed and scattered their flavor genes all over my strawberry bed. Or that bland American mâche is reverting back to an older, more perfumy type.
In any case, the mâche and I have co-evolved in a way that guarantees happiness for both species. It has found a way to please the gardener, so it stays in the garden.