Okay so the Irish are just really getting into salads the last few years and we are probably the only country in Europe to have had such a disdain for what is a given menu staple around the world for decades. When I was training in the eighties a standard salad was a buttercup lettuce leaf, a quarter of unripe tomato, a couple of rings of cucumber, a slice of onion or scallion and a splash of salad cream and usually served on the edge of a main course plate as a garnish. The likes of radishes, rocket, peppers, bean sprouts and balsamic, forget it. You could not even get a shallot in Dublin in the eighties. A prawn cocktail or egg mayonnaise was the closest you were going to get to something continental. I can only imagine what the early tourists from France or Italy would have made of our miserable salad offerings back then. At least we were all making our own mayonnaise something hardly ever done now.
Only while working then in the famed Le Coq Hardi restaurant in 1987 I got to make my first real salad, a cutting edge lobster, avocado and mango combo at a whopping £13.75 a portion, the most expensive in the country at the time and nearly a day’s wage for yours truly back then, about €35.00 in today’s money. There was as much detail in this as a main course. The careful washing and drying of the lamb’s lettuce, the testing of the vinaigrette with a leaf dipped in it as this is the only way to see it is spot on and never a spoon for tasting it. Then the all important ripening of the still then exotic avocados and mangoes which had to be exact by leaving them wrapped in brown paper under the table for days until just soft to the touch and the lobster fresh from Howth harbour poached to the second, then shelled and chilled. It was a pleasure to prepare it for regulars like the high and mighty moneymen and rock stars of the day or then Taoiseach who had a discerning taste for the finer things in life! It is still my favourite salad but I like to add some pink grapefruit now to it.
Then it was onto a whole new level again the year after, serving them in France where all things salad are held in the highest esteem. I recall the same seriousness of the prep and construction regarding any salad based starters; it had to be just right. Even in home settings there the ceremony around dressing and serving a big bowl of summer leaves and whatever else was in the salad mix and passing it around the table is still a pleasure to behold. You know what reaction you would get from an Irish household if that was tried out at dinner back in the seventies with the don’t give me that rabbit food attitude, being the prevailing eating philosophy of the day, a big feed is what was needed.
Fast forward to Ireland today and the starter menus are littered with everything from Caesar’s and Greek’s to fancy grains and pastas of all hues and shapes. We even have chains of takeaways salad shops who will bamboozle you with the array of choice they can feed you. The current twenty something generation have no idea how rare a good salad was before they were born. We now have people growing Swiss chard in their little back gardens and the salad counters in supermarkets are a blaze of colours and textures from around the world. The salad bars in work canteens and self service deli stations are impressive too.
There was a time when salads meant seasonality but sadly the modern consumer wants all food all the year and the food and farming industries happily oblige. The best grower in my area is Stephen McCormack above and his family farm producing amazing quality greens. But at least we are eating them no matter where they come from; they are healthy and if done right are simply delicious. So now that summer is here maybe it is time you broke your salad duck if it has been something you have been avoiding. Time to get munching.