I am in England as I type this, out in the countryside near Northampton at my friend Alexander Chancellor’s stunning Inigo Jones house, where, between fleeting moments of sunshine, it is gray and cold and generally pouring down rain. But it is also the day before summer officially begins and I am about to make a salad.  In fact, we’ve been rather determinedly making salads at every meal for the last three days now—running out to the garden with head down and hood up to grab a handful of rocket (arugula) and snip a few herbs. These we’ve tossed with endive and little gem lettuces, olive oil from Tuscany, a squeeze of lemon and Maldon sea salt.  It may not feel like summer outside, but inside we have summer on a plate.

The Brits get a bum rap about their cuisine. These days, of course, there are brilliant chefs cooking all over London—tomorrow, as it happens, I’ll be dining at Heston Blumenthal’s much-lauded Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Still, people persist in thinking of English food as all bangers and mash, bubble and squeak, lots of over-boiled potatoes and great haunches of meat.  It turns out, though, that what they’ve always been very big on are salads.

My friend Vicki Woods, whose own English garden is overflowing with rocket and mint, basil and chives (not to mention masses of gorgeous English roses), turned me on to Robert May’s “The Accomplisht Cook,” for example.  May, one of England’s first professional cooks, published his recipe for “Another Grand Sallet” in 1660, but it sounds almost exactly like what I’ve been doing for the last few days: “All sorts of good herbs, and little leaves of red sage, the smallest leaves of sorrel, and the leaves of parsley pickt very small, the youngest and smallest leaves of spinach, some leaves of salad burnet, the smallest leaves of lettuce, white endive and charvel, all finely pickt and washed and swung in a strainer of a clean napkin and well drained from water: then dish it out in a clean scowered dish…with good oil and vinegar.”

Three hundred years later, the great English food writer Elizabeth David wrote,  “It seems to me that a salad and its dressing are things we should take more or less for granted at a meal, like bread and salt.”  Her seminal Mediterranean Food reintroduced her War-deprived countrymen to the pleasures of olive oil and herbs, as well as such exotica as gazpacho and “a salad of aubergines.”

Now, fifty years after that, we have Nigel Slater, the excellent food columnist for The Observer whose book “Tender,” is a beautifully illustrated chronicle of the bounty from his London garden. There are wonderful recipes—Vicki swears by the celery gratin, which elevates that humble garnish to a grand main event—but you can tell that salad is Slater’s number one love. “If there was a recipe that stood for everything I believe about good eating,” he writes, “it would be the quiet understatement that is a single variety of salad leaf in a simple bowl. Each leaf should be perfect, the dressing light and barely present, the whole effect one of generous simplicity. “

As they say over here, good point, well made. Elsewhere on Fetch this week—in what I hope is an illustration of that point—you’ll find a story called “Salad Days,” which includes a gorgeous photograph (by my good friend Gus Schmiege) of a salad tossed with lemon olive oil and sparkling wine vinegar from the St. Helena Olive Oil Co.  I think Slater would approve. Below, you will find his recipe for “A Lemon Dressing for Summer” that is a close approximation of the “O’Kelly Girls Vinaigrette” featured in the photo.  I also include a cucumber salad from David’s “Summer Cooking.” Like May’s 17th century recipe, both are written plainly in the way that people actually talk. They are also examples of elegant restraint that result in some sublime summer salads. It may be cold and wet, but as usual, the noble Brits remain unbowed.

 

Nigel Slater’s “A Lemon Dressing for Summer”

Mix together a pinch of salt, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard and the juice of half a lemon. Beat in 200 ml olive oil and a teaspoon of grated lemon zest. Leave for a few minutes for the ingredients to get to know one another.

 

Elizabeth David’s “Cucumber and Chive Salad”

A cucumber, a few chives, and, for the dressing a small cupful of cream, a teaspoonful of sugar, olive oil, salt and pepper, a teaspoonful of tarragon vinegar.

Slice the cucumber paper thin. Sprinkle coarse salt over the cucumber and leave it in a colander to drain for half an hour.

Mix the sugar and vinegar together, then add the cream, pepper and salt. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the chopped chives, and pour the dressing over the cucumber in a shallow dish.

 

Shop TAIGAN for Nigel Slater’s Tender at Heirloom Books

 

About Julia Reed

Julia Reed is a columnist at Garden & Gun magazine and a contributing editor at Elle Décor. She also contributes to The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, and The New York Times, and makes frequent appearances on MSNBC. She is the author of five books, including But Mama Always Put Vodka in the Sangria, Adventures in Eating, Drinking and Making Merry and One Man’s Folly, The Exceptional Houses of Furlow Gatewood.

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