This adorable little species belongs to the Valerianaceae family that also includes the medicinal herb valerian (Valeriana officinalis L.). Primarily a plant of seashores and lighter soils incl. cultivated land, the seeds of the corn salad, lamb’s lettuce or mâche* as it is also often called, germinates during autumn and the plant establishes a dense rosette before winter. Leaves are elongated and spoon-like. During spring and summer, the short plant (5-20 cm) flowers with tiny beautiful light blue or white flowers in small head-like assemblies. In our region, its distribution reaches up to 60oN. The common cornsalad is in fact sometimes called winter salad due to its ability to withstand low winter temperatures.
As ordinary consumers, we probably most commonly see it in plastic trays next to other leafy vegetables such as escarole and rucola. Having a mild and a bit nutty taste, the common cornsalad is very tasty in a mixed salad with a splash of olive oil and a little balsamic vinegar.
Interestingly, not even the fairly insignificant cornsalad has escaped man’s interference and desire to select and improve. The vegetable bible of 19th century, Vilmorin-Andrieux’s The Vegetable Garden** mentions six different “varieties”, including ‘Mâche Ronde’ (with round leaves), ‘Mâche Ronde à Grosse Graine’ (i.e. a large black variety) and ‘Mâche Verte à Cœur Plein’ (i.e. with a “filled heart” as a small cabbage head). According to Vilmorin-Andrieux, seeds of cornsalad were intersown with other vegetable crops, e.g. onions, and then harvested with roots and everything ‒ just as we find them in the store today. Growers handled their own seed production by selecting vigorous rosettes that were later re-planted and left to flower and set seed. Today we would more rightly talk about cultivar-groups rather than varieties because the old “varieties” consisted of many different, but closely related, individuals.
Vilmorin-Andrieux’s own judgement about the cornsalad was the following: “‒ This forms with the outer stalks of Celery, one of the few really good mixed salads.” (!) So why not try that for a change?
Text: Jens Weibull
* The name mâche probably comes from the French mâcher, meaning chewing.
** M.M. Vilmorin-Andrieux (1885) The Vegetable Garden. Illustrations, descriptions, and culture of the garden vegetables of cold and temperate climates London (620 pp.).