This week, we again find ourselves in the finals of the Urban Food Awards, run by SUSTAIN’s Jellied Eel, the essential journal of ethical eating. A change of format this year sees the award categories based on product, so there’s recognition for the best cheese, sausage, beer, bread; whilst growers’ interest will be focused on the “London Leaves” contest.
In recent years, we have seen the emergence of the mixed leaf salad as a concept and a product, from supermarkets to farmers’ markets, from gourmet restaurants to pub grub. This new thing is, as is often the tradition with new things, in essence bone-creekingly old. The earliest humans, and their primate predecessors, grazed on a range of edible leaves: for the earliest Britons, these would have included wild celery, chervil and cresses. As we shifted from hunter-gatherer to cultivation, salads were among the first cultivated plants: here, beet leaves and sorrel would have been key parts of the diet, whilst Romans later introduced lettuce and endive.
Renaissance gardeners developed new varieties of salad, and in the seventeenth centurythe herbalist Culpepper made much of the health virtues of “salading” plants. John Evelyn, one of our earliest garden writers, wrote Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets in 1699, committing to the posterity of print the oral tradition of the cottage garden, a cornucopia of plants intermingled, with no sharp distinctions between ornamental, vegetable and medicinal, neither in the garden nor on the plate.
It’s unclear to me at what point the decisive shift from saladings came. What can be said for certain is that, by the 1970s, one particular salad combination had become utterly dominant. This is, of course the trio of crisphead lettuce, tomato and cucumber. Note that the latter two items are not leaves but fruit, and form the basis of Lea Valley glasshouse production from before the War to the present. Note also that, whilst this three-piece band may well be considered a classic, their period of hegemonic power coincides with the relegation of salad from a dish in its own right, to a side, treated by many as a garnish to be left uneaten.
Turn and face the strange: I believe London, our increasingly unfair city, does right now happen to be one of the most exciting places in the country for salad, though I do realise that using “exciting” and “salad” in the same sentence may seem a little contradictory, even to those this side of the Garnish brigade. That’s why, whoever wins this week, to paraphrase the football pundit’s cliché, “at the end of the day, salad growing’s the winner”.
Whoever wins, Growing Communities, one of the other nominees, deserve much of the credit for London’s salad growing renaissance. When I arrived there at the turn of the millennia, salad leaves were already recognised as their key product, in terms of impact if not land area. I assisted Brian Holden, to whom the salad bag was so much a vindication of permaculture gardening; and was encouraged and directed by (appropriately enough) Director, Julie Brown. Her application of the permaculture concept of zoning to food production, posited, amongst other common sense things, that urban growers could and should concentrate, first and foremost, on highly-perishable, highly intensive salads and leaves, whilst the right place for bulky field veg is, naturally enough, the hulking fields of the “rural hinterland”.
This schema, the “Growing Communities Model” of legend, prompted, in 2014, a reorganisation of the GC’s Urban Market Gardens, so that they grew almost entirely salad leaves. This required me to devise a salad rotation, to seek out new leaves to fill that rotation, and trial and error a range of approaches to cut-and-come-again, successional sowing and relay cropping. Almost as breathtaking as such horticultural jargon were the advances in techniques and blend recipes. When Hawkwood happened, I tried to take all the learning up the Lea and continue to push on there, where our 89 varieties of leaf and 42 edible flowers that made up the mix last year, only tells half the story. Meanwhile, Sara; Paul; Sophie; the Patchwork Farmers and the committed volunteers, have made GC salad a firm fixture in their box scheme and many shops in and around Stoke Newington, and last year scooped a national Soil Association award.
Spreading like wild rocket, now all community gardens that have an enterprise element, and many that don’t – from Sutton to Acton, from Crouch Hill to Enfield – have drawn inspiration from these East End pioneers, or from a broader zeitgeist, and developed their own methods and mixes which, arising from their particular soils and situations, have resulted in salads the same but different, all as unique as the boroughs they grow out of.
Here at Hawkwood, we welcome in the autumn equinox , and the winter leaves: the chicories, mustards, baby kales, begin to replace some of the softer summer offerings. Our range and proportion of different types has stabilised since the early exuberant days of experiment and discovery, though there’s always another trial or tweak: Sculpit and Caucasian Spinach here, an extra bed of watercress there. Our salad bags span the entire history of salads, from the Chervil and Celery leaf of prehistory, through the Romans and renaissance plants: the endive and rocket, to recent introductions such as Texel Greens and Shungiku. From the well-known lettuce to cult classics like sorrel and corn salad. From “exotic” novelties like ice lettuce and ceylon spinach to London peculiars like Walthamstow Yellow Cress, London Rocket and Amaranth “Tower Hamlets”. It’s a vegetable item, then, that is broad, deep, rich, deep and dynamic. Salad days need never end again.