|It’s lettuce. But look closer:
how many kinds can you spot?
A lettuce is a lettuce is a lettuce, right?
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.
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.
Batavian (Black Seeded Simpson, Lettony, Rouge Grenobloise)
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
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.
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.
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.