Mid October might seem an odd time to be writing about the joys of home-grown salad, but let me assure you – there’s plenty to be nibbling on at this time of year. My successional sowings have done really well – I’ve just started harvesting the first rocket, mizuna and cress I sowed in early September, along with red cos lettuce sown on 17 July and chicories sown just after the longest day back in June. I say ‘salad’, but as you can see from the photo below there’s also a fair proportion of what you might, in a posh restaurant, call ‘local, wild-foraged greens’. Or what the rest of us call weeds.
Chickweed is a great autumn salad (look at other edible weeds) — its delicate, sweet leaves and stems make a great accompaniment to the grandes dames of the late leaves – chicories. Chicory is one of those flavours; like anchovies, espresso and blue cheese – that could definitely be called ‘acquired’. I learnt to love them, along with all manner of wild (predominantly rather bitter) winter salad herbs while travelling in Italy one February a few years ago. Their tart crunchiness works really well with rich, hearty winter dishes – especially if simply dressed with olive oil and lemon juice.
If you find their bitterness too much, try a slightly sweeter dressing. I enjoy a vinaigrette made of walnut oil, cider vinegar and a dash of maple syrup or runny honey. Another tip I learn’t from Italy is to cut a clove of garlic in half (leave the skin on) and rub the cut edge all over the inside of the salad bowl before adding your salad and dressing it as normal. That way you get the aroma of garlic without the overpowering taste. Which reminds me – it’s garlic planting time. Split the bulbs into individual cloves, plant each clove a hand span apart in a sunny spot.
But why bother growing garlic? Fresh or ‘wet’ garlic is rarely available in the shops but it’s a real treat (it’s definitely not just a cliché that homegrown tastes better). The bulbs we normally get in the supermarket are dried, pungent and strong. Fresh garlic is just as ‘garlicky’ but utterly wonderful in its own right – it has its own special fragrance; it’s a bit like comparing the taste of the first new potatoes to a jacket potato. Any growing tips? Be patient (my garlic planted on the third of November last year didn’t poke above ground until well into January). Come midsummer’s day you’ll have fat, delicious heads of garlic – and a bare spot in the garden to sow chicories. What could be better?