There’s a kind of hush over the vineyards of Alsace in the still chill depths of these spring 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, in amongst the discarded vine clippings, some exuberant little green rosettes are thrusting upwards. Welcome the wild mâche des vignes! Its timely appearance provides me with a reason (if one were needed) to take a vineyard walk – preferably armed with a basket and a small sharp knife for severing the mâche (a.k.a. corn salad or lamb’s lettuce) just above the root.
Plenty of others 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. The round-edged, deeply green leaves, like tiny tongues, have an elusive but oh-so distinctive flavour. Like all salads that grow through the winter, starved of sunlight and braced by sub-zero temperatures, it has more taste than any of its summer cousins, which have been indulged with sunshine and generous splashings of water.
And what does mâche actually taste of? I’ve loved it so long I find its flavour 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, a salad with hints of nuttiness. Then I get sweet notes, quite unlike those of bitter winter chicories or peppery rocket – though I have to admit I’m probably influenced by one of its alternative names in French, doucette or ‘sweetie’. Maybe it tastes of [sweet]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 meadows 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 fairytale 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 lay 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 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. It’s very typical – and widely available – in our three-country region of Alsace, Switzerland and southern Germany, but elsewhere it seems to be much more elusive.
I sometimes allow myself to be seduced by the classic French (or Swiss or Badisch) addition of a few crisp-cooked bacon cubes. However, it’s possible that spring dandelions, coarser and slightly bitter, withstand a bacon onslaught even better than the tender, sweet mâche. A safer garnish is a scattering of finely chopped hard-boiled egg.
Twinning it with beets is definitely permissible – their deep ruby (or golden, as below) flesh looks drop-dead gorgeous set against the deep emerald tongues, especially if you add a counterpoint of cubes of fresh white goat’s cheese (not feta, which is too salty). Pomegranate seeds and/or toasted pumpkinseeds don’t go amiss either.
My happy foragings were immortalized in Fruits of the Forest, Cooking with Wild Food, winner (in its French edition) of the 1995 Prix Mazille International at the Périgueux International Cookbook Fair. It’s long ago out of print, but used copies still pop up on the Internet