The makings of a good salmagundi as pondered down the centuries

Sandy Neil Salad
Sandy Neil Salad

Salads, originally ‘sallets’ or ‘salletts’, have been eaten in Britain since the 14th century, when the earliest salad is recorded in the first known English cookbook, The Forme of Cury, written in 1390 by the master-cook to Richard II: “Take parsley, sage, garlic, Welsh onions, leeks, borage, mint, porette, fennel, watercress, rhue, rosemary and purslane. Lave them clean, pick them, and pluck them small with thine hands and munge [mix] them well with raw olive oil. Lay on vinegar and salt, and serve forth.”

Perhaps the Plantagenet King’s medieval chef was so keen to impress the Royal guests he didn’t care that too many ingredients may spoil a salad, swamping the taste of individual ingredients.

However, it is a lesson the English clearly learnt by Stuart times, when John Evelyn wrote the standard treatise on the subject, Acetarie, a discourse on salads, and his rules for making a good salad cannot be improved upon today, more than 300 years later.

“A salade is a Particular Composition of certain crude and fresh herbs, such as usually are, or may be eaten with some Acetuous Juice, Oyle, salt etc to give them a grateful gust and vehicle. In the composure of a Salet, every plant should come in to bear its part, without being overpowered by some herb of a stronger taste, so as to endanger the native sapan and virtue of the rest; but fall into their places like the notes in music, in which there should be nothing harsh or grating; and the admitting some Discords (to distinguish and illustrate the rest) stricking in the more sprightly and sometimes gentler Notes, reconcile all dissonances and melt them into an agreeable compotion.”

The 16th-century salad known as ‘salmagundi’, mentioned in The Good Huswife’s Treasure (1588) and meaning a wild muddle of things like another cookery word ‘gallimaufry’, was a medley of piquant tastes such as salt herrings, anchovy, capers, samphire, olives, orange and lemon, set off by blander and crisper things such as celery, chicken, eggs, lettuce, sorrel, spinach, onion, almonds, peas and whatever else the frugal English housewife found clearing out her larder. Perhaps because this clear-out was often a recipe for disaster, salmagundi dropped out of popular favour in the 19th century, but the Danes still eat an elegant salmagundi hors d’oeuvre called ‘sildsalat’ (herring salad), with everything chopped up together such as herring, chicken, apple, beetroot and onion.

Scour any classic Scots cookbooks for old salad recipes however, and you’re as likely to find a historical anecdote revealing that the Bold Buccleuch dined on cress and rocket before springing Kinmont Willie from Carlisle Castle.

Writing generously in 1829 in The Cook and Housewife’s Manual, Meg Dods (a pseudonym of Christine Isobel Johnstone, wife of Sir Walter Scott’s publisher) called salads at best a “harmless luxury … though they afford little nourishment of themselves.” Contrast her words with the advice given by health authorities now: that leaves, fruits, roots, nuts and seeds are essential to living beyond The Sick Man of Europe’s short lifespan. It is perhaps ironic therefore that the name of this key to healthy living is, according to Theodora Fitzgibbon’s Food of the Western World, derived from the Latin word for salt, sal, which is also the root of the Turkish, Swedish, Danish, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Greek, German and Norwegian words for salad.

In local dialect, “rabbit food” is what many old school Scots call it, refusing to believe a bowl of leaves can nourish a creature any bigger than a farmer’s boot.

Salad isn’t deeply rooted in Scottish food culture: it’s merely a bean shoot struggling for light in a forest populated by the ancient oaks of tablet, tattie scones and rumbledethumps.

While we have super salad ingredients growing in abundance in the Borders’ fertile alluvial soils this summer, Scotland hasn’t the traditional recipes or customs to toss them in a bowl with a drizzle of dressing, but we can simply borrow these techniques from the wisdom of countries across the world where salad has been popular and everyday for centuries.

Making a salad is, writes Meg Dods, “a delicate, jaunty branch of the culinary art”, where one invents, improvises and creates. A salad is a graceful complement to a meal or a meal in itself, as good, or as bad, as its ingredients, of which the combinations of are limitless. Select salad greens that are fresh, crisp, clean, cold and dry, and a medley of leaves for zest and variety. To make a salad into a light lunch or supper on a hot summer evening, bulk up the bowl with raw vegetables such as thinly sliced courgette, celery, cucumber, cabbage, green or red pepper, parsley, finely grated carrot, broccoli florets or beetroots, or lightly cooked vegetables like fresh sweetcorn, string beans and sliced carrots. Cooked or sprouting beans, rice, croutons, fruit like shredded apple or sliced orange, and toasted nuts like pumpkin or sunflower seeds also make excellent additions to a salad, while edible flowers such as nasturtiums, borage, chive heads, wild garlic and calendula add bright, alluring colour.

For dressings, John Evelyn writing in the 1600s believed an artful mixture of mustard, oil and vinegar, with or without the addition of hard-boiled yolks of new-laid eggs carefully rubbed in to the dressing, “was all sufficient”, but as a guide there’s also the basic formula of three parts olive oil to one part vinegar or lemon juice, with salt and pepper.

A tip is to use dressing at room temperature, because it spreads further and coats the greens more evenly. Toss until the ingredients glisten with the dressing.

Green leaf salads should be tossed just before serving, whereas root vegetable salads and those dressed in mayonnaise will improve if dressed the day before. The exceptions are watery vegetables and fruits, such as tomatoes, which lose flavour if kept over 24 hours.