Every spring, in two large flower pots in my Saint Montan garden, I grow the attractive climbing plant dipladenia, bearing red, pink, or white, trumpet-shaped flowers. Dipladenia grows quickly in the south of France and each plant soon twists its stems around the 2 metre-high tripod in its pot to make an attractive display.
By July, the pots are fringed with the olive-green fronds of purslane – pourpier in French – botanically Portulaca oleracea, a wild herb that is self-sown in my garden and that’s popular in kitchens around the world. From Mexico to China, from Greece to India, purslane is valued for both its flavour and exceptional health properties.
Purslane grows freely on poor soil in sunny climates around the Mediterranean yet the herb is little known in Britain or the US. Jane Grigson tells us that in Malawi the name of purslane “means ‘buttocks of the wife of a chief’ which helps in remembering their shape and texture.”
Their delicately lemony flavour makes purslane leaves well-suited for adding to raw ingredients. I cut sprays of the red stalks of my purslane plants and detach the fleshy leaves for adding to green salads. Often scattered over crisp lettuce with purslane’s herbal partners coriander and mint or enjoyed in fresh salsas and sauces. Whereas in Lebanon and other places purslane is also treated as a vegetable and is prepared like spinach by steaming or wilting in an oiled pan then dressed with plain yoghurt; or the herb is cooked and chopped to make a filling for pies.
Purslane is a herb waiting to be appreciated in Britain. Paula Wolfert, the renowned author of books on Mediterranean cooking, praises its concentration of Omega-3 fatty acids that exceeds the level in some fish oils plus its high percentage of Vitamin A, iron, potassium, and calcium, and anti-oxidants. Herbalists consider the beta-carotene content of purslane – said to be higher than in carrots – plus its trace elements and minerals as treatments for insomnia, inflammation, migraine, and high blood pressure. And the influential writer on the future of food, Michael Pollan, considers purslane as one of the two most nutritious plants in the world.
Garden purslane is more upright than the low spreading wild variety but is equally easy to grow. In a protected corner of my Devon garden the cultivated herb grew abundantly and well. Seeds are available in the UK from The Green Seed Co., Suttons, and Mr Fothergill’s. Moreover, since bunches of purslane are sold in markets in Mexico and Turkey, it may be only a matter of time before climate change brings purslane to markets in Bermondsey and Birmingham too.
CUCUMBER AND FLORENTINE FENNEL SALAD WITH PURSLANE AND FRESH FIGS
An end of summer salad of crisp, refreshing vegetables with ripe figs and purslane leaves enhanced with a subtly spiced dressing. I usually arrange this salad, lightly chilled, on individual plates.
1 head of Florentine fennel, also known as bulb fennel
finely grated zest and strained juice of ½ lemon
3-4 ripe figs, depending on size
1-2 handfuls of purslane leaves, rinsed in cold water then drained on kitchen paper
¼ teaspoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon clear honey
¼ teaspoon ground fenugreek
scant 1/4 teaspoon of mild curry paste
sliver of peeled garlic, crushed with some salt
4 tablespoons olive oil, ideally unfiltered
flakes of red chilli pepper
Use a potato peeler to remove most of the green peel of the cucumber. Trim away the ends and quarter the cucumber lengthwise, remove and discard the seeds then cut each quarter in two lengthwise then divide again into long slim pieces. Cut the cucumber into batons – roughly the length of your thumb – and place in a bowl with half of both the zest and juice of the lemon.
Snip off any green fern-like fronds of the bulb fennel and reserve for garnishing the salad. Trim both ends of the vegetable then cut in half lengthways. Place the flat side down of each half on a chopping board and carefully cut across to produce slim, curved slices. Add the fennel to the bowl of cucumber and gently toss the vegetables together with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.
In a small bowl, make the dressing by blending together the mustard, honey, ground fenugreek and the curry paste with the salted crushed garlic, the remaining olive oil and remaining lemon juice. Taste to check the flavour and add extra salt, if necessary.
Arrange the cucumber and fennel on a serving dish or on individual plates. Trim off the stalk ends of the figs and cut into slim segments. Scatter over the figs with the purslane leaves and some sprigs of fennel fern if available. Spoon over the dressing, sprinkle a few shreds of lemon zest and some chilli flakes on top then chill the salad until ready to serve.
My recipe for PEACH AND PURSLANE SALAD WITH TOASTED HAZELNUTS can be found in Recipes from a French Herb Garden.