bitter greens

bitter greens

This time of year, I think of Rapunzel. I think of her mother, pregnant with her, so desperate for the taste of a particular salad green, thought to be Valerianella locusta, known as corn salad, lamb’s lettuce, mâche, but also perhaps parsley, ramps or rampion, that her husband was willing to give her unborn babe to the woman whose garden he’d been caught plundering for the sake of his wife’s health.

In Philip Pullman’s wonderful edition of the Brothers Grimm, it’s lamb’s lettuce growing in a neighbouring garden owned by a powerful witch:

One day the woman was standing at that window, and she saw a bed of lamb’s lettuce, or rapunzel. It looked so fresh and green that she longed to taste some, and this longing grew stronger every day, so that eventually she became really ill.

I also long for greens in early spring. Not the spring mix from plastic clamshells — somehow all those tiny leaves taste exactly the same and that taste is innocuous — or the bagged arugula, a most beautiful herb redolent of pepper and walnuts that needs sunlight and a bit of chill to really come into its own. I grow a couple of kinds but my favourite is one of the Diplotaxis spp., a wild-ish green with ferny leaves and a delicious spicy flavour. There are some 12th c. Italian texts called the Trotula, possibly the work of a woman doctor, that are considered the first specifically gynecological treatises and the wild arugula appears in them as a treatment for dysentery. So maybe arugula is a contender for the green that Rapunzel’s mother longed for? The garden her window overlooked, tended by that witch, was very likely a medicinal garden, and the witch was probably a herbalist.  There was wisdom in the growing of a variety of greens. Science now “tells” us what gardeners have always known: these plants contain so many important vitamins and elements necessary for heart health, muscle health, digestive function, vision, and more.

Yesterday I planted a bed of early greens. I have kale already and some miner’s lettuce —

miners lettuce.jpg

— as well as a blood-red sorrel. There are dandelions appearing by the garden paths and I planted their wild cousin, Cicoria selvatica da campo, for a reliable source of those bitter leaves. A newly-planted bed looks both plain and hopeful. Tiny seeds lovingly strewn in a shallow furrow, soil pressed over, labels tied onto bamboo sticks, a daily visit (or maybe even hourly) to see if anything has sprouted yet, and then one day, this:


And the greens are easy to grow. Many self-seed. That miner’s lettuce is growing in a tub on a deck by my kitchen so I can snip leaves for small dishes and there are seedlings coming up in neighbouring pots too. I also planted a row of it so we can have larger amounts of it in salad. The arugula self-sows and that Diplotaxis is a short-lived perennial in my garden; I’ve planted more because I never know how many of last year’s plants will have survived the winter (and this winter was severe). Kale — well, it’s everywhere. I’d like to grow watercress but I don’t have a damp enough area. I do know several places to gather it though. And it’s another contender for the plant Rapunzel’s mother craved. Which makes me wonder by Rapunzel’s father didn’t have a small garden patch of his own?

Spring tonic

When I was a child, one of my favourite fairy tales was Rapunzel. Beyond the tower, beyond the hair, beyond the young man climbing to rescue the sheltered girl from a possessive foster mother, I was intrigued with the plant which Rapunzel’s birth mother had craved while pregnant and was willing to give up her unborn child in order to have access to the patch in the witch’s garden. That plant was Allium tricoccum or ramps, a kind of wild garlic.

I’ve never seen it growing here but when I lived in Ireland many years ago, I used to pick it in the hedgerows on my walk from Eyrephort strand to Clifden. It kept fresh in a glass of water and I’d clip it to add to my daily meal of nettles and mussels. (I was trying to find my voice as a writer and was living on a small island off the Connemara coast. I had no money and foraged as much as I could.) It didn’t surprise me that a woman would crave the green tonic of that plant.

This time of year I crave watercress. For some years I used to gather it in several places around Pender Harbour. But the problem was, I was kind of suspicious about the conditions upsteam from where the cress grew — in one instance, a shallow lake favoured by beavers; in another, the community landfill. But our friends Joe and Solveigh grow it in a pool in their garden and the other night they sent us home with a bag of it. I love its peppery flavour, so bracing and so delicious. Every year I tell myself I need to work out a way to grow watercress here but every year it seems that I get swamped with other chores.

Tonight we had a fillet of local halibut to put on the barbeque and I put some of the watercress in a large bowl with about the same amount of a lovely mesclun I’m growing this year. I have several kinds — one with red mustard, two kinds of kale, and other spicy greens. This one, though, is more nutty: it contains arugula, a few other greens that are mildly flavoured, and little stalks of onion. I sliced about two cups of strawberries into the bowl — not local, not yet, but they were on sale in our local market and have good flavour, unlike the woody berries that we get in winter. And then I made a dressing, inspired by one in an old Bon Appetit magazine but altered enough that I think I claim it as my own. I roasted a head of garlic, brushed with a little olive oil. (I was baking bread today so had the oven on anyway.) Once it had cooled, I peeled the cloves and put them in the blender and pureed them. I added two tablespoons of honey (blueberry blossom honey from the North), two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar (from a bottle our friend Jeffrey made from his apples in Powell River), a squeeze of fresh lemon, two tablespoons of apple butter (made from apples bought in Spences Bridge in late August), and a tablespoon of Dijon mustard. Once that had been mixed well in the blender, I slowly added about 1/2 cup of olive oil. I used perhaps three tablespoons of this delicious emulsion on the salad, tossed it gently, and then scattered a small handful of hemp seeds on top.

The smoky fish, tangy greens, strawberries, earthy hemp seeds, dressing so deeply flavourful that I’m glad I made enough for several more salads: spring tonic!