Love them or loathe them, bagged supermarket salads have opened our eyes: we now know the delights of a salad full of colour and texture, with not only lettuces but also herbs, and a range of flavours from mild and sweet to spicy, peppery or bitter.
One of the many reasons I leapt at the chance to join VP's 52-week Salad Challenge is that I've never quite managed to organise things so that I have a good mix of salad ingredients to pick at any one time.
The more I thought about it, the more I realised I was looking for my perfect, home-grown supermarket bagged salad. Without the bags, without the chemicals, and without the carbon footprint.
But more than the environmental benefits, I want it to be more interesting than the actual ones you buy from the supermarket; more personalised than the salad seed mixes you can buy from the seed companies. One made just for me.
One problem: deciding what to grow. Well - where better to start compiling a shopping list than the ingredients list on that bag of supermarket salad currently languishing in the drawer at the bottom of the fridge.
At the moment, mine is a standard issue Florette Mixed (I like Florette as it’s one of the few brands which states where the ingredients are sourced – and that’s the UK, and Lincolnshire in particular, all year round, it seems. Why others are so coy about where their salads are from I've no idea. Could it be they're shipping it in from halfway around the world even though we can grow it here?)
Ingredients: Frisée lettuce (we know this as curly endive: it has a pleasantly bitter tang, and needs blanching), iceberg lettuce and radicchio which adds a splash of burgundy to the green. Right: that’s three on this list, although last time I tried to grow iceberg it refused to heart up.
Florette's Crispy adds lambs' lettuce to the list but omits the Iceberg. We buy both, can't remember which I prefer (maybe that should tell me something, though).
From the rest of their range I like the sound of 'Four Leaf Salad': that's Lettuce 'Can Can' (frilly, green, new one on me but widely available), lambs' lettuce, red butterhead (this one from T&M looks really good) and something they refer to as 'red multileaf' – I'm taking that to be a mix of red lettuce such as Lollo Rossa.
Let's try Essential Waitrose mixed salad: green Batavia, Apollo lettuce, red oak leaf and Lollo Rossa. Red oak leaf and Lollo Rossa are old friends and I’ll be glad to give them house room again. Batavia turns out to be another frilly-leaf lettuce type; and I think Apollo is only grown for commercial use as I can’t find it offered to gardeners. It’s a Romaine lettuce – a type I like anyway, so I’ll just have to find a substitute.
So far... so everyday though. I'm not really looking to grow a wide range of lettuces. I'm after something a bit more interesting. I'm after some herbs in my salads. And maybe some peppery zing.
Waitrose baby leaf herb salad mix: very vague about the lettuce content, but adds baby spinach, rocket, flat-leaf parsley and chives (interestingly, the mix states the proportions of salad leaves to herbs: it’s 78% salad leaves to 22% herbs. So a handful of herbs to every four of lettuce-type leaves then).
Other interesting bits from the Waitrose range include their Tenderleaf Salad: lamb's lettuce, pea tops and chard.
I had a hunt through other ranges, most of which we've tried at some point: Sainsbury's Herb Salad is Lollo Rossa, Cos lettuce, rocket, coriander and parsley (again with that 80/20 ratio of lettuce to herbs).
Then there's Steve's Leaves: relatively new in town but with a good and improving environmental policy. Pea Shoots and Baby Leaves is a 40/60 mix of pea shoots, and baby spinach and chard. Other mixes in the range include wasabi (now that should be interesting), and watercress.
But you know what? I think we can do better than all that.
I want to try some heritage lettuces, with their quirky flavours and splashed or ruched leaves. I want to throw in some oriental leaves: mizuna, peppery red mustard, maybe chrysanthemum greens. And oddities like samphire and New Zealand spinach.
I shall report back via these pages. Should be an interesting year!