It’s lettuce. But look closer:
how many kinds can you spot?

A lettuce is a lettuce is a lettuce, right?

Well – not exactly.

As I was drawing up my (still lengthening) shopping list for VP’s 52-week salad challenge – three lettuce varieties sown, about 33 to go – I began to realise that there is a whole lettucey world out there of which I know very little.

My VP-powered list began sprouting ever more names: Batavian, Butterhead, Romaine…

I’m familiar, in a woolly sort of way, with some of these through buying them in the shops, and as it turns out I’ve grown most types at one time or another, without taking much notice of what they were or what they did. But that’s about it.

So I went and did a bit of digging around to see if I could find out what’s out there. Here’s what I came up with:

Batavian (Black Seeded Simpson, Lettony, Rouge Grenobloise)

The British Leafy Salad Association website (don’t get excited: it is, how can I put it, not designed for gardeners) describes this as ‘non-hearty’ – I beg to disagree, as when I grew Black-seeded Simpson last year, thinking it was a loose-leaf, I was a little disconcerted when it did in fact form a heart. A very loose one, it’s true, but undeniably hearty.

Anyway, Batavian lettuces are known for their thick, crinkled leaves, crisp texture and exceptional flavour – usually described as nutty, and I found it quite savoury in comparison to other lettuces. It’s very complex, very interesting, and quite unlike any other lettuce I’ve ever eaten. Oh, and they’re enormous, stand well after maturing, and stay fresh for ages.

Iceberg (Webb’s Wonderful, Chancellor, Reine de Glace)

Also known as crisphead; also known as the wateriest, most tasteless lettuce you’ll ever eat.

Iceberg was terribly trendy in the 1970s, but that was when we knew nothing about food. Part of its success was its ability to keep, making it a supermarket buyer’s darling. Flavour, shmavour.

It comes as something of a surprise to realise that Iceberg was bred from Batavian lettuces. Didn’t inherit the flavour gene, then. But: Joy Larkcom says the red-tinted ones are tastier: the only one I could find was ‘Red Iceberg’, offered by Real Seeds, so maybe that’s one to try.

‘Salad Bowl’ frothing at the
feet of my peas last year
Loose-leaf (Catalogna, Salad Bowl, Oakleaf, Lollo Rossa)

The lettuce type I almost always grow, as it’s easy and keeps going for ages and ages. They don’t form hearts, simply continuing to produce leaves from a loose centre which you can pick, either taking off the outer leaves whole, or snipping the whole thing off with scissors about 5cm above ground (leaving enough to preserve the growing point intact).

Monty Don rather surprised me by writing he thought Lollo Rossa ‘runs Iceberg hard for tastelessness’. That’s not been my experience. The flavour is fine – perhaps not the greatest of them all, but good – and the texture excellent. And it looks fantastic. But my desert-island loose-leaf is Salad Bowl; pretty, in zingy lime green, and very tolerant of nearly every type of neglect I throw at it, it’s beautifully crisp, with a light, refreshing flavour.

I also adore the deeply-lobed oakleaf types – Salad Bowl is similar in leaf shape but the one I covet is bronze-tipped. I think it may be Bronze Arrowhead and I must track it down and grow it: they are quite the most beautiful things.

Butterhead (Merveille de Quat’ Saisons, Tom Thumb, Valdor)

Another one with other names: cabbage-head, round-head, or those flaccid lettuces we all ate before Iceberg came along and seemed the answer to all our woes (little did we know what a world of flavour was just around the corner).

The only one I’ve grown is Tom Thumb, which is just the cutest little lettuce you ever did see. It’s only about 3” across, tightly hearted and ready in next to no time, and you can serve a whole lettuce as a side salad, with room for the trimmings. This month I also sowed Merveille which is red-tinted: I’ve coveted this one for a while.

All have tightly-packed hearts with flattish tops – rather like a cabbage – and are soft in texture, so eat straight after picking or they’ll wilt (as we all know from the shop-bought variety: this has to be one of the veg most profoundly transformed by growing at home).

Romaine and Cos (Freckles, Deer Tongue, Lobjoit’s Green Cos, Little Gem)

Well – who’d have thought it. Romaine and cos are the same thing. I always had them down as something different: and I’m sure I’ve seen both of them for sale side by side.

Apparently ‘cos’ is a British name: we called it after the Greek island it arrived from (via North Africa). Romaine is used in France and the US: it just means ‘Roman’, which is as far back as it’s been cultivated. Joy Larkcom adds the category ‘semi-cos’, which as far as I can see means the smaller varieties like Little Gem.

They all share that torpedo-like upright shape, a slowness to mature, and an outstanding flavour, much praised by gardeners in the know. Monty Don swears by Lobjoit’s; I grew Freckles last year, and… well, it was nice enough, and pretty, but I wasn’t jumping up and down about it.

I’m probably just not growing the right one. I really fancy Amish Deer Tongue (also Red Deer Tongue); a big bruiser of an American lettuce which looks just gorgeous. And I suppose I’ll have to give Lobjoit’s a go: Joy Larkcom likes it too. Whatever you grow, pick it the moment it’s ready: once a cos lettuce reaches maturity it’ll bolt as soon as look at you.