Spring Salads

Spring salads in France celebrate the fresh, crisp leaves that appear
at the  start of the growing season. The bright green lettuce leaves of
the ever-popular salade verte still hold a hallowed place in many French
meals, either at home or in a restaurant. Yet, a few changes may be
afoot. A fortnight ago, when lunching with French friends in their Paris
apartment, they served their salade verte in an innovative way.

A bowl of chilled lettuce leaves was placed on the table for each
person to serve themselves. Then a small bottle of unfiltered olive oil
was passed around but instead of trickling it on to the salad, the oil
was added with a pipette, as used in a school laboratory. By gently
squeezing the small rubber bulb attached to a slim glass tube I rained
drops of the golden oil over the leaves. Then we were invited to
sprinkle fresh lemon juice over the salad, add sea salt according to
taste, and finally scatter flakes of dessicated brewers’ yeast on top. I
was amazed by how delicious I found this simple green salad.

In Saint Montan, on a sunny spring day, I like to make an attractive
green salad with torn leaves of a crisp lettuce such as Webb’s Wonder
arranged on individual plates. Then trickle over a well-flavoured
vinaigrette followed by a scattering of tender, young sprigs of garden
herbs such as small spears of sorrel and lemon verbena, with chervil,
parsley or mint leaves. Finally, I add a few edible spring flowers such
as pale yellow primroses, tiny violets and dusky blue rosemary blooms.
In early April, if I’m lucky, I’m able to pick a posy of pencil-slim
stems of wild asparagus from my hillside garden. This is trimmed to
finger length, very briefly blanched in salted boiling water and then
arranged on top of the salad before serving.

Another appetising spring salad that I favour in April is made with
crisp, curly endive leaves and utilises the French custom of adding hot
garlicky croutons and lardons to the individual plates just before
serving. The welcome contrast in temperature and texture deepens the
flavour of a salad making it an ideal start to a meal.

Serves 4

4 handfuls of washed and well-drained endive leaves
1 clove garlic
salt and freshly milled pepper
6 tablespoons fruity olive oil
¼ baguette loaf, cut into cubes
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon clear honey
1 tablespoon red wine or sherry vinegar
150 g/ 5 oz allumettes or lardons of smoked streaky bacon

Set the oven or grill to high. Rinse the endive leaves in cold water,
drain well and shake dry in a salad basket or spinner.

Peel the clove of garlic and crush with some salt on a chopping board
then scrape the mixture into a roasting pan or baking tray and blend in
half the olive oil. Add the bread cubes and toss together until coated
with the garlicky oil then place in a hot oven or under a grill on high
until the bread has turned into golden, well-toasted croutons.

Arrange the leaves on 4 individual plates and blend together the
mustard and honey with the remaining olive oil and just enough vinegar
to make a vinaigrette that suits you. Add salt and pepper to taste then
sprinkle over the leaves.

In a frying pan, cook the allumettes or lardons over high heat for 4-6
minutes or until the fat begins to run. Remove from the heat,  add the
croutons to the hot pan and toss with the lardons then spoon over the
salads. Serve straight away.