Enamored of Mache
The last three winters since we’ve been here, I have been able to grow salad greens throughout most of the winter. While it dipped down to 0F (-18 C) in February of 2007 (or was that 2006?), there was a thick snow cover that helped to mitigate temperatures on the ground – and in my improvised cold frames – as well as insulate plants from the effects of desiccating winds.
Not this year! Not having set-up my second-hand hoophouse cold frames yet, everything is growing in the open or under agricultural fabric layers. Growing… or dying that is, since we have seen -5F (-21C) without snow covers and icy drying winds sucking the life out of my kitchen garden.
The arugula, cutting celery & parsley while alive do not look too happy – darn right bedraggled, actually. The mature Swiss Chard has expired in a messy brown & slimy goo (the seedlings seem OK). The lettuce has rotted to the base. Since they may send side shoots in early spring, I am leaving the stumps. The bokchoi, tatsoi and the likes are still buried under their blanket of straw. The mache, however… the mache… is green, and while I would not call it “lusty”, it certainly looks good enough to eat. Which is what we are happily doing, as seen pictured with this slab of homemade pate.
What is mache, you ask?
If you are English, that’s “Corn Salad” or “Lamb’s Lettuce”, in German “Feltsalat” or “Ackersalat” and in Italian “Valeriana”. While there are many species of mache, each slightly different in taste, leaf form or color, Valerianella locusta is the one you are most likely to find in cultivation. It originates from Eurasia, and grow wild in many places in Europe and the British Isles. I read that it also escaped cultivation in the North Eastern US, but I have not found it in the wild (I have also not looked!). There is also an Italian species Valerianella eriocarpa which is not as cold hardy.
The taste is mild, slightly nutty or peanuty.
It’s hardly a new vegetable. Seeds of two species have been found in the archeological remains of the lake dwellings in Switzerland, dating back to the Stone Age, according to food historian William Woys Weaver. Its old name is “fetticus”, and it can thus been found in old American gardening books, since the plant was introduced in the US by the colonists in the 17th century. Even William Cobbett acknowledges it in his 1819 best seller “The American Gardener” – although what he has to say about it is grossly condescending and proves that even he was subject to mistakes. In two lines, he dismissed Corn Salad: “This is a little insignificant annual plant that some persons use in salads, though it can hardly be of any real use, where lettuce seed is to be had. It is a mere weed.” More of this later.
How do you grow mache?
The first time, buy some seeds (or get them from a friend who grows mache). Here are some commercial sources (I am sure they are many others; if you do have another mache source, please leave it in the comment area):
Wait until late summer to broadly scatter the seeds in place in a prepared bed. No need to cover the seeds with soil. You may water gently. The seeds will germinate when they decide that they like the weather: in my garden, that’s sometimes in September (or October) when the temperatures start to cool and the fall rains come. I expect you could speed the germination process by providing shade and moisture. Mache grows when it’s cool, in the fall and throughout the winter until early spring. The plant forms small rosettes; a mature full rosette and all its side shoots can be quite dense and could be as large as a hand, depending on the cultivar and your growing conditions. Many times, they”ll be only 1 to 2 inches in diameter. Do thin (and eat the thinning) so the remaining plants have a chance to get big. The more room they’ve got, the bigger they’ll get. Harvest throughout the winter. If the weather is supposed to get cold (less than 10F/ -12C), throw some agricultural fabric on it. I noticed that the mature leaves of some of the plants grown without any protection got damaged when the mercury dipped that much (Maybe I have some Valerianella eriocarpa?) But be sure to lift the fabric again when the really cold spell is gone, so as not to overheat the plants. They won’t like it, and neither will you.
When I grew mache the first time, I did not get a very good germination rate, so I did not eat much of it, but let most of my plants go to seeds because I wanted to let them produce seed to they could naturalize. Which they did vey obligingly and copiously. At the first warm days in April (which here in Virginia can come early – even if there is still frost ahead), they will bolt, producing thin stems topped with myriads tiny white flowers that will last until sometime in May. They make a pretty filler plant in their small way, growing about 18 inches tall. The last two pictures (click to see larger view) show mache blooming, under just planted kale seedlings and with almost-finished primroses.
When the seeds are mature (late May/June), they’ll fall to the ground, reseeding themselves. You can also collect the seeds for late summer sowing, or pull the plants – seeds and all – and throw them elsewhere in the garden, where you want mache to grow in the fall. Yes, there are other things growing in the beds by then (tomato, peppers, chard etc), but it does not matter, mache seedlings will come up when the conditions are right for them , and when the summer crops are almost over anyway. Do this for a couple of seasons, and mache becomes part of your garden: you won’t have to buy seeds again. Just remember: except for the few plants that you want to save for seeds (leave the best and biggest plants for seeds, to ensure a good strain), pick all the mache you can throughout March and until early April, lots of it: they bolt very fast, and when they bolt, all the plant’s energies go into the seeds: they’ll be no leaves to eat. But picked and cleaned, mache will keep for a couple of weeks in a the fridge.
How do you eat mache?
Pick the entire plant by cutting it off with scissors, wash, trim, wash more, spin dry, put in a pretty bowl and dress with your favorite dressing. The simpler the dressing the better in my opinion. It can be a pain to pick them (and wash!) when they are very small, but it’s much more rewarding as the plants get bigger.
And what else – pray, tell- grows here so carefree when it gets so cold?