Last week I was in the Pomario with NYU Program Garden students and couldn’t help noticing how well our salad crops were doing. It was a sight that brought back memories of a sunny afternoon of forty years earlier. As an intern in France, I had been asked to harvest some lettuces for the evening meal I was to share with fellow students and the curator of the botanic garden I was working in. I removed the slugs, a universal guarantee of organic produce, the sad outer leaves and then washed the leaves that were to be served. A large bowl of glistening green leaves on the table, I thought my task was complete. To that day I had seen some folk squirt salad cream from a tube on to such leaves but I, like everyone I knew, ate my salad leaves unsullied. On his entry to the room the Curator made it clear that I’d forgotten something and I had to admit that I had no idea of how to ‘dress a salad’. I felt as though I’d just crawled from under a damp and very uncivilized stone but I didn’t even know what he was talking about. His shock at my lack of sophistication contained, he took pride in demonstrating the preparation of a French Dressing. First the Dijon mustard and a hint of salt were mixed together in the bottom corner of a jug, wine vinegar was mixed in a way that left me sure that the spoon needed to make a very precise number to journeys around the jug if perfection was to be achieved and then finally a healthy dose of the best quality olive, was gently folded into the mixture. The dressing was casually poured over the salad and then, in front of everyone, the leaves were most delicately turned using two large wooden spoons. The whole event seemed more a religious right than the preparation of our evening meal.
I had never seen such kitchen reverence but I have never forgotten how to prepare that French Dressing. At Villa La Pietra, in early September, Program Garden Students sowed and planted the salad crops that are soon to be harvested. We are keen to know how they taste but, to be honest, it’s hard to know quite what to do with lots of salad leaves, how to make tasting them into a special occasion. Perhaps the Acton family had the same problem because amongst the thousands of books held in the Acton collection is one entitled “99 Salads and How to Make Them; With Rules for Dressing and Sauce”, Spaulding & Co, Chicago, 1897.
A cue to suggesting that Program Garden students each harvest some of their salad leaves later this month and then try preparing a couple of salad dressings, taken from the book, and see which they prefer. Who knows, forty years from now they too may still remember how to make the perfect salad dressing … and in doing so take joy in their memories of salad days at Villa La Pietra.
by Nick Dakin-Elliot, Horticultural Associate