There’s a kind of hush over the vineyards of Alsace in the chill depths of these winter months. Lone viticulteurs move quietly between the rows of dormant vines, snipping away last summer’s spindly growth, restoring order and symmetry with an eye to next year’s crop. All is quiet — well, not quite all. From the bare brown earth among the discarded vine clippings, some exuberant little green rosettes are thrusting upward. Welcome the wild mâche des vignes! Its timely appearance provides me with a reason (if one were needed) to take a winter vineyard walk — preferably armed with a basket and a small sharp knife for severing the mâche (aka corn salad or lamb’s lettuce) just above the root.
Plenty share my fondness for this delectable winter salad, though few nowadays pick it themselves — except perhaps from their own gardens, where they’ve taken care to sow it in the dying days of summer. Its round-edged, deep green leaves, like tiny tongues, have an elusive but distinctive flavor — like all winter salads starved of sunlight and braced by sub-zero temperatures, it has more taste than any of its summer cousins indulged with sunshine and generous splashings of water.
And what does mâche actually taste of? I’ve loved it so long I find its flavor hard to pin down, like someone you’ve known for ages and can no longer find the words to describe. Sometimes I think it tastes a little like walnuts. But that’s probably because somewhere in the back of my mind is its evocative name in Swiss German, Nüsslisalat, or “a salad with hints of nuttiness.” Then I get sweet notes, quite unlike those of bitter winter chicories or peppery arugula — until I have to admit I’m probably influenced by its alternative name in French, doucette or “sweetie.” Maybe it tastes of corn, as one of its names in English suggests? Another English name — lamb’s lettuce — reminds me that just now, when mâche is coming into its own, it’s lambing time in the close-cropped fields of the Sussex Downs and the Yorkshire dales.
Best of all I like the name they use in some parts of Germany and Austria, Rapunzel, with its fairy-tale suggestions of letting down of hair. It’s true that the plant goes a bit mad once winter is over, bursting into a shower of tiny blue flowers and then wantonly sending out seeds in all directions, thus ensuring a good harvest for me the following winter. The best mâche in my garden is always the self-sown kind; the seeds I place tenderly, expectantly in the soil somehow never do half so well.
Whatever name it answers to, mâche is so delicious it’s well worth pursuing. (It’s also bursting with B, C and D vitamins, beta-carotene and Omega-3s, but I’m with fellow Zester contributor Clifford A Wright that such talk is the kiss of death for any food, so we won’t go there.) Farmers markets, farm shops and enlightened stores sell these appealing little green rosettes. Often they come mixed with other salad ingredients — radicchio, cut-and-come-again leaves, even arugula. This is a pity. Enjoy mâche by itself and allow its elusive flavor to come into its own. Don’t even think of cooking it — all the flavor will leach out into the water, along with all those vitamins. If we’re talking salads, I sometimes allow myself to be seduced by the classic French addition of a few crisp-cooked bacon cubes. But in the end I have to concede that spring dandelions, coarser and slightly bitter, withstand a bacon onslaught better than the tender, sweeter mâche. A safer garnish is a scattering of finely chopped hard-cooked egg. Twinning mâche with beets is definitely permissible — the beets’ deep ruby flesh looks drop-dead gorgeous set against the deep emerald mâche tongues, especially if you add a counterpoint of cubes of pure white goat’s cheese (not feta, which is too salty).
And what about you? If you’ve foraged, grown or bought mâche and nibbled it thoughtfully, have you the words for the taste?
Carpaccio of Roast Beets on Mâche Leaves
With Fresh Goat Cheese and Balsamic Dressing
For this vibrant ruby red, green and white salad, the beets are roasted, peeled, thinly sliced and arranged on a bed of mâche “tongues.” The salad is drizzled with a balsamic dressing and garnished with soft fresh goat’s cheese.
- Cut greenery from beets. Scrub them well but do not peel or trim the tails or the beets will “bleed.”
- Place beets on a large sheet of foil, sprinkle with oil, salt and pepper and close up the foil to make a snug package.
- Bake in a 350 F/180 C oven for 1½ to 2 hours or until the beets feel slightly soft when pressed, and the skin rubs off easily.
- Remove package from the oven, and let beets cool in the foil.
- When cool, rub off the skins or pull them away with a small sharp knife.
- Pluck the leaves off most of the mâche (reserve some whole rosettes to decorate) and arrange the leaves. around the edge of the plates, like little green tongues.
- Slice the beets very thinly and arrange the slices in concentric circles inside the ring of mâche leaves.
- Mix together the walnut oil and Balsamic vinegar and drizzle this over the beets.
- Arrange reserved mâche rosettes in the centre of the beets and scatter cubes of goat’s cheese on top.
Sue Style is originally from Yorkshire but has migrated over the years to London, Madrid, Fontainebleau, Mexico City and Basel. She’s now happily ensconced in southern Alsace. The author of eight books devoted to all that’s good to eat and drink in the places she’s lived in and loved, her ninth, due for publication in 2011, is about Swiss farmhouse cheeses. Her articles appear in Financial Times Weekend, Decanter, Condé Nast Traveler, France Magazine and on her website: suestyle.com.
Photos from top:
Basket of mâche. Credit: Sue Style
Carpaccio of beets with mâche and goat cheese. Credit: Nikos Kapelis