If you want to serve a simple but delicious salad during the holidays (or for any meal) that will impress and get rave reviews, then you need to grow mache. (Valerianella locusta.)
A drizzle of walnut oil and squeeze of lemon is probably all you need to dress the tender leaves. Heavy dressing would ruin the delicate nutty flavor. Other additions that will compliment the taste of the mache leaf are feta cheese, walnut pieces or roasted beets.
Not only is mache delicious, but it’ll provide lots of nutrients at a time when fresh from the garden food is in short supply. Supplies just about as much Vitamin C as lemon juice and lots of other good nutrienta to help our bodies function.
To serve this salad, you’ll probably have to grow your own. (Fortunately it’s very easy and I’ll give you some secrets to growing it in a minute.)
Why it May Not Be Available in Many Stores
It’s grown commercially in California by the grower who made the bagged salad mix popular in the U.S. (Todd Koons). He wanted to do that with mache as well, but to my knowledge, that hasn’t happened yet.
One drawback to commercial growers is the cost of having mache harvested mostly by hand. Lettuces grown commercially are usually harvested mechanically. But mache grows low to ground and makes mechanical harvesting difficult, if not impossible.
Besides, this is one lettuce you’ll want to serve as soon as possible after harvesting. That’s when its taste can be fully savored.
History of Mache (Pronounced Mahsh)
This delicate looking winter green that grows in a low rosette had it beginnings in the wilds of Europe. It was foraged in grain fields by the peasants for centuries until the the royal gardener of King Louis XIV of France introduced it to “royalty” and thereby introduced it to the world in the 1600s.
Although mache is not well known by the general populace in the U.S., Thomas Jefferson grew mache here in Virginia at his home Monticello. (He gardened there from 1767 through 1824.)
I’ll bet mache was and still may be a winter staple for folks living in the area of Jefferson’ Monticello. The variety of mache that Jefferson is thought to have grown (Verte de Cambrai) self sows readily and probably naturalized into other areas of Charlottesville and beyond.
Why I Plant in the Fall
I order my first seed for this plant about 5 years ago.
As the catalog and/or seed packet instructed I sowed seed in early spring.
I didn’t know it then, but it must have been too warm that particular year. And mache seed won’t germinate in warm temperatures.
It’ll wait for the right conditions. And that’s just what it did. It showed up in my garden in October. That’s when I got the message that this wonderful little plant grows best in fall conditions.
Now I direct seed mache into available garden beds in September and then forget them. I notice them again in October when they’ve reached a size I can eat.
Thinning/Transplanting the Seedlings
If you broadcast the seed as I do, you might want to thin them as they come up so each plant will have a few inches to grow. (Eat the thinnings or transplant them.) You’ll get bigger plants if you keep them 2 or 3 inches apart. Bigger plants mean bigger leaves. Bigger leaves means easier to pick.
Test it out for yourself as time allows. (Sometimes I thin and transplant and sometimes I don’t.)
How to Harvest Mache
If you harvest the whole plant, it won’t grow back. If you harvest just the outer leaves , the plant will keep producing through the winter, although slowly.
In the spring the growth is much more bountiful.
Although you’ll get more nutrients from the leaves when you harvest before the blooms come, they still taste delicious even when in bloom. I’ve never had it turn bitter.
Mache is allowed to fully mature in my garden so it can self seed and thus appear next year. (You can also collect seed if you’re attentive enough. So far I haven’t been, but I intend to be!)
So Why Plant More?
Even though mache self seeds, I have to plant more seed to get enough to enjoy the bounty I want from this delicious little green.
It takes planting a lot to get a full-sized salad using all mache leaves, much less getting enough for a salad every several days through out the winter when growth is slower.
The mache that reseeds in my garden has a leaf that is paddle-shaped, about 1/4 inch across and one inch long. I have to really want that salad to make myself pick long enough to get an abundance of small leaves.
Even the largest of mache leaves are small when compared to cut and come again lettuces. The larger leaves are about 3 inches long and not quite 1/2 inch wide. But it still makes a big difference in how much you can get in the same amount of time harvesting.
Another variety has a round leaf about the size of a quarter. I find that too is easier to pick.
Varieties: The Large Seeded/Small Seeded = Big leaf/Small Leaf?
When I first bought my seed, it was offered under the generic name “corn salad”. A few catalogs used its French name, mache. I never remember seeing any different varieties offered.
This year I’m seeing numerous varieties mentioned in different catalogs as well as articles on mache.
Apparently, all varieties fall into one of two catagories: large seeded or small seeded.
The odd things is, I have several varieties of mache (two considered small seeded and two considered large seeded). I don’t see any difference in the seed size. Unless I’m missing something, I think when catalogs say large seeded they are referring to a variety with a larger leaf. And when they say small seeded, they are referring to a variety with a smaller leaf.
The variety that Thomas Jefferson may have grown has a very small leaf. Fedco refers to Verte de Cambrai Mâche as a small-seeded small-leaved strain.
Any Dutch variety is usually large leafed because the large leafed mache is what the Dutch prefer. The Dutch varieties are referred to as large seeded.
The one Thomas Jefferson is said to have grown is Verte De Cambrai and is referred to as small seeded. It has a very small leaf.
What’s Different Other Than the Leaf Size?
Various accounts say that small seeded (small leaf) varieties have better flavor. Maybe my taste buds are not “refined” enough, but I enjoy both small leafed and large leafed and can’t tell that much difference.
- Fall planting; spring planting
Small seeded (small leafed) varieties grow better when planted in the fall. And large seeded (large leafed) varieties take the heat better and can successfully be planted in the early spring.
I have both in the garden right now and I planted them (except for the volunteers) in September. I want to remember to note in the spring if the large leafed variety stays around longer when it gets warm.
Having Enough to get Through the Winter
I had wanted to use two beds entirely for mache as a cover crop last fall, but things didn’t work out.
I want to grow a Dutch larger leafed variety, but can’t seem to locate seed in any quantity except a small packet. I’ll look around some more, but I’ll order the small leafed by the pound if I have to. That’s about the only way I’m going to get enough mache in the quantity I’d like. (Germination can be spotty, so having a large quantity of seed is helpful.)
Regarding Varieties – You Might find this helpful
I saw excerpts from Marie Iannotti’s book the Beginner’s Guide to Growing Heirloom Vegetables: the 100 Easiest to Grow.
She notes Bistro as her favorite variety of mache. It’s a large seeded variety that takes the heat and the cold.
She mentions Piedmont as another that takes the heat. (Good if you want to plant in the spring.)
Now that I’ve completed this post, I just realized I wrote another post on Mache last March! I’m putting this up anyway, because it gives a lot of additional information.
An Interesting Bit of Trivia
Since then I found out which fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm mentions this delicious green. (Millard mentioned it in his comment to the March post.) The story is entitled Rapunzel which is the German word for corn salad (or mache). The story begins with a woman, who is with child, craving a salad plant called rapunzel that she can see in a neighboring property from the window of her home.
Her husband steals the green for her under cover of darkness. It made her want 3 times as much! When he returned to the garden of the enchantress to get more, the enchantress was waiting for him. The cost of the rapunzel his wife desired ended up being their child, who in turn was named Rapunzel.
Whether you have a winter garden or not, you can have mache growing. It laughs at the cold. Hardy to zone 5 without protection.
It’s a plant that has its feet in the wild and that nature provided to nourish us during the winter months when little else is available.
And if you want to treat your family and guests to gourmet fare at your Thanksgiving or Christmas table, serve a salad of mache.
Now that you know more secrets of how to get a bountiful amount of this delicious green, there’s no reason not to grow it.
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