When I travel, I like to visit the sites well enough. What would a trip to Paris be without an Eiffel Tower selfie? But it's really the little things that paint the picture for me. The small habits and gestures of the locals that are so ingrained in the culture they go unnoticed by the residents but are just different enough from my everyday to feel exotic. The heft of a one pound coin in my hand in England, the feel of the metal mate straw against my teeth in Argentina and, in Paris, the lettuce. That's right, mâche, the deliciously ubiquitous garnish of greens served in French bistros is my touchstone in the city of light.
"Frites ou salade?" was the question that got me started on the stuff. I'm sixteen, sitting in a bistro in Paris and wanting to answer the waiter's question, the equivalent of "You want fries with that?" in the most sophisticated French way I can muster. "Salade, bien sûr!" What arrived next to my croque monsieur was a neat little pile of what looked to be a blossomless flower bouquet. Mâche, which grows in tiny rosettes, charmed me instantly. And the first bite surprised me as well. As delicate as they look, the leaves have a succulence that makes them really juicy. So they're fun to eat, too. It's no wonder that mâche is gaining popularity here in the States. Given the choice, I say, more mâche!
A Brief History
Mâche, Valerianella locusta, has a rags-to-riches background. It was first enjoyed as a humble weed that volunteered between row crops. It was a wild but edible plant that was foraged from the nearly barren fields of Europe in the spring, before the first crops were planted. The French, who still maintain a loyal dedication to the green, began cultivating it in the 17th century. Thomas Jefferson, known Francophile, discovered the delightful plant on a trip there and brought seeds back to grow mâche at Monticello in the early 1800s. Until recently, mâche lovers have had to grow their own or convince local farmers to plant a crop. But in the past decade, Todd Koons, Chez Panisse alum and bagged lettuce pioneer, has begun growing mâche commercially at his Salinas Valley farm, Epic Roots and hopes that Americans' love of the green will grow to equal that of European eaters. Travelers who have enjoyed mâche in Europe, such as famed farmer Barbara Damrosch, who describes the plant's allure in her article in the Art of Eating, are beginning to seek out the tasty rosettes, making them an "in demand" salad item. Not bad for an ex-weed.
- Mâche love is powerful. Mâche, aka Rapunzel, was the delicious green in the fairy tale of the same name that tempted the pregnant peasant into pilfering the witch's garden and was then forced to surrender her baby in return.
- Mâche is also known as "corn salad" because before it was cultivated, it grew as a weed between the rows of cereal crops such as corn, rye and wheat.
- Mâche is also known as lamb's lettuce because the leaves' resemblance to the shape of a lamb's tongue. (Not to be confused with lamb's quarters, a totally different green.)
- And it is also known as "doucette" in France, which translates as "little sweet one."
- There are over 200 varieties of mâche that differ in flavor, texture and adaptability.
Mâche is not hard to grow. In fact, left to bolt, it will self-seed and volunteer annually. It grows in sun and even light shade.
Mâche grows very low to the ground in three to six inch rosettes of leaves that sprout from very fine stems. It is harvested most commonly by slicing the plant off at its base or just below the soil line to keep the rosette intact, leaving the root in the ground. It can also be harvested by pulling a few leaves from the plant at a time in a cut-and-come-again fashion.
Because it grows so low to the ground, mâche is most often hand-harvested which can drive up cost and keeps it from playing a larger role in commercial production. And its low growing ways also mean that it is often quite sandy and requires thorough washing to get the vegetable table ready.
Because of its compact size, many growers adopt mâche for their hydroponic systems. However, without the rigor of surviving in the elements, the leaves of such plants never develop the thick juicy bite that is characteristic of field grown plants.
For the seasonal farmer, one of the best features of mâche is its frost tolerance. The plant is so hardy that it can even be harvested frozen. That means it can be grown in the earliest part of the season before other greens would whither in the chill, bringing a fresh blast of green to the early spring table.
Mâche is cold loving and must be planted in cool temperatures as the seeds go dormant in warm soil. But it will continue to flourish until temperatures reach the 80s. And, unlike other greens, mâche doesn't get bitter as the plant ages so it can be harvested continuously until hot weather sets in.
Probably because mâche is planted so early in the season, before many pests are out of hibernation, it doesn't require topical applications to thrive. While the plant enjoys soil that has been enriched with compost, it is not finicky and doesn't need to be propped up with chemical amendments. The plant makes an excellent green manure and soil conditioner, particularly if turned under after harvest.
Mâche grows in circular leaf configurations that are about three to six inches across. The leaves are dark green and tender.
What to look for
When buying mâche, look for rosettes that are still intact, as they will keep longer than individual leaves. There should be no sign of yellowing or aging.
Nutrition and effects on the body
For a tiny plant, mâche packs a big nutritional punch. They are high in Vitamins C, A, and B6. They are a good source of iron, potassium and copper and are packed with beta-carotene and omega 3s, making them one of the most nutritious lettuces available.
What to Do with It and Cooking
Mâche is most frequently featured in salads. Its mild flavor makes it a great companion with spicier greens such as arugula or served simply dressed on its own. In France, it is tossed with beets and walnuts.
You can also use it in soups.
Its mild flavor would fold into a smoothie unnoticeably.
It can even be lightly sautéed.
Fresh mâche keeps for up to two weeks if loosely wrapped in a reusable plastic bag and refrigerated.
Mâche with Creamy French Dressing
It is best to keep dressings light when serving mâche so that they don't overpower the delicate flavor of the leaves. The pale yellow "bistro vinaigrette" that is served at every corner boite in Paris is perfect. Every time I've visited I've begged my waiters for the secret of that dressing. It's so light and creamy but still tangy. I always get the same answer, "C'est vinaigrette!" True, but it isn't like any other vinaigrette I've had. Until Jacques Pepin let the cat out of the bag - the secret to creamy French vinaigrette is...drum roll...cream! According to him, substituting a portion of the oil in your standard vinaigrette recipe lightens the dressing - cream has less fat than oil - and coats the leaves, rather than weighing them down. Just what you need to get the most from your mâche.
Pro tip: Make the dressing a little ahead. It thickens up nicely if given thirty minutes to an hour in the fridge.
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup lemon juice, white or red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
1/2 neutral flavored oil, extra virgin olive oil or a combination of both
1/4 cup heavy cream
4 cups mâche rosettes thoroughly washed and spun dry
2 beets roasted, peeled and diced (optional)
1/4 cup walnuts (optional)
In a medium bowl give the mustard a few whisks to lighten it. Add the juice or vinegar and whisk to combine. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and whisk to combine. Slowly drizzle in the oil, whisking all the while to incorporate it. Do the same with the cream. Taste and adjust seasoning. Toss mâche with enough of the vinaigrette to coat the leaves to your taste.* Divide between 2-4 plates. Top with beets and walnuts, if using. Serve.
* This recipe will give you more than you need to dress one salad and keeps in the fridge for up to five days.