Wednesday, May 14, 2014

An Edible Antique: Recreating A Jeffersonian Salad

Chronica Domus
A home grown Jeffersonian salad comprised of Spotted Aleppo lettuce, nasturtium flowers and French tarragon
Photo: Chronica Domus

As readers of this blog will learn over time, I am partial to the decorative arts of England, America, and France during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Not only do I enjoy collecting and using items from this period for my home, whenever the opportunity arises and when funds permit, I also enjoy sourcing heirloom plants, both ornamental and useful, to add to my garden.  To that effect, it was with great pleasure that I had the opportunity to visit one of America's premier antique vegetable gardens, perched high upon the side of a mountain in Charlottesville, Virginia, and created by Thomas Jefferson at his home, Monticello. Jefferson, America's third president and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, was an accomplished tobacco and grain farmer and a grower of fruits and vegetables.  Through constant experimentation, and at the garden's most productive period around 1812, the one-thousand foot-long terraced plot was used to grow at least 330 varieties of vegetables, most of which were used to feed family and visitors at Monticello.

Chronica Domus
High summer in the vegetable gardens of Monticello, photographed during my visit in 2012
Photo: Chronica Domus

On May 6, 1795 the sage of Monticello wrote in his journal "The first lettuce comes to the table". Well, I am pleased as punch to report that exactly 219 years later, give a day or two, my first Jeffersonian lettuce has arrived at my own table.  You see, when I visited the garden two summers ago, I came away with a souvenir; two packets of heirloom seeds harvested by those that tend Monticello's garden today.  I selected the seeds based on the fact that the varieties were grown on site in Jefferson's lifetime, not easily found elsewhere for purchase, and that frankly, I was unaware of the existence of the curious sounding Spotted Aleppo lettuce.  I was very keen to take a little bit of Monticello back with me to California, a place virtually unknown to Jefferson, in an attempt to cultivate the very same lettuce he grew all those years ago in Virginia.  Perhaps, if successful, I could even go as far as recreating a salad that would have been made in the kitchens of his home, and served to Jefferson, his family, and his guests.  Would such a salad taste and look differently than if I used modern varieties of lettuces available today?  I was curious and excited to make the discovery for myself.

Chronica Domus
An attractive seed packet of Lactuca sativa 'Spotted Aleppo' lettuce seeds harvested from plants grown at Monticello
Photo: Chronica Domus

This is the second season since purchasing my seeds that I have planted Spotted Aleppo, an 18th century variety regularly grown at Monticello and first procured in 1804 from Bernard McMahon, a prominent Philadelphia seedsman and mentor to Thomas Jefferson.  I was so enamored by the initial crop last year, and found it easy to cultivate, that I let the plants go to seed so as to enable me to collect more than enough for this year's sowing.  It was recorded that lettuce was planted an average of eight times annually at Monticello during the years 1809 through 1824.  Obviously, salads played a prominent role in Jefferson's diet.

Chronica Domus
A head of Spotted Aleppo lettuce exhibiting the characteristic rusty brown spots
Photo: Chronica Domus

I sowed my seeds on St. Patrick's day, March 17, in neat little rows in my Lilliputian vegetable garden. It took about a week until the cotyledons, the first sign of germination, pushed through the cool black earth. Those tiny leaves are always such an exciting time for any gardener to spot, full of hope and optimism for a bountiful crop. On May 9, with less than six weeks in the ground, I harvested enough tender leaves to make my salad, picked in the early morning sunshine, just as they were at Monticello, then laid in cool water and removed hours before they were needed at dinner. At maturity I discovered the Spotted Aleppo, a type of romaine lettuce, is far more diminutive in scale than the hefty romaine we know today.  I estimate that the length of the leaves are no more than about eight inches.  They are also much more tender and delicate, and not at all tough and crunchy.

Chronica Domus
More of Jefferson's speckled lettuces basking in the sunshine of my vegetable garden
Photo: Chronica Domus

Esculent nasturtium flowers, that grow with abandon in my garden, were added to the lettuce leaves so that I could accurately recreate a salad that would have been a familiar sight at the dining tables of Monticello. Not only were these cheery flowers used to prepare salads by Jefferson's cooks, the leaves too were mixed in with other greens and lettuces. Nasturtium seeds were also utilized surprisingly, so nothing went to waste. These were a substitute for capers so I would imagine they were somehow pickled to serve their purpose. An 1,800 square foot bed was dedicated to the growth of nasturtiums at Monticello, planted annually between 1812 and 1824.

Chronica Domus
My garden trug holding freshly picked lettuce leaves and nasturtium flowers ready to be taken into the house
Photo: Chronica Domus

Jefferson's travels to Europe helped hone his interest in French cuisine and opened new gastronomical worlds for him.  He would send back foodstuffs, such as wine vinegar and virgin olive oil from France, to be used in the preparation of salads and vegetables.  As much as he enjoyed expensive imported olive oil, he did note that the freshness was somewhat compromised through its exposure to hot storage environments as it made its passage across the Atlantic ocean and to his home.  With this in mind, he experimented with growing sesame plants to produce a domestic salad oil that would provide a possible substitute for his favored olive oil, having once described it as "the richest gift of heaven".  Of sesame oil he said, "I did not believe there existed so perfect a substitute for olive oil".  Try as he might, he could not produce a worthwhile quantity of oil from his sesame plants despite seven years of persistence.

Salads at Monticello would be dressed at table with the oil and vinegar having been stored in glass cruets.  In my recreation of the salad, I substituted Spanish wine vinegar for tarragon vinegar, which was often used at Monticello, and introduced freshly cut French tarragon, Thomas Jefferson's favorite herb, into the mix of lettuces and nasturtium flowers.  With the final addition of a sprinkling of coarse salt, and a crack or two of the pepper mill, my home grown Jeffersonian salad was complete.

Chronica Domus
Late 18th century glass cruet bottles containing extra virgin olive oil and wine vinegar to dress the salad.  Jefferson used similar bottles but his were designed with a silver lip and handle.
Photo: Chronica Domus


Chronica Domus
An antique salad recognizable to Thomas Jefferson had he been a guest at my table
Photo: Chronica Domus

Dinner was served much earlier in Jefferson's day and to honor that tradition my salad was eaten around 4 p.m., the time the second bell rang to alert guests that they should assemble in the dining room to begin their meal at Monticello.

Chronica Domus
All done, and how delicious that was!
Photo: Chronica Domus

As I sampled the tender spotted leaves, the peppery bright flowers, and the pungent French tarragon, I toasted Jefferson and thanked him for his inspiration that I might eat as well as he, on simple food that had been grown in my own garden, with seeds from his. It was, indeed, a most satisfactory feeling.  To these simple ingredients, the addition of imported olive oil and vinegar that is now shipped to my home in a matter of days rather than weeks, as was the case in Jefferson's day, completed my salad, an edible antique and one that would be wholly recognizable to him were he to have joined me at my humble table.  I can only imagine the conversation that would ensue.  Would we wax lyrical about the quality, variety, and sheer quantity of food available to us in 21st century America?  Would he be surprised and pleased to discover how much of that food was locally grown and produced in California, including his favorite salad oil? And, what would he think of food globally produced, much of it perishable, and flown magically through the skies to reach our plates in peak condition?  Would we also deliberate, in shared disappointment, the modern norm of so few meals being taken while actually seated at a dining table?

Growing your own antique salad can successfully be accomplished in a small corner of the garden or through the use of several large containers.  Fortunately, one need no longer make the pilgrimage to Monticello to lay hands on these heirloom jewels, thanks to the modern wonders of internet shopping.  I urge you to try these surprisingly tasty old varieties for you too will discover their ease of growth and their deliciousness.

Our eating habits may have changed over the past two centuries but one thing that will always remain the same is our tendency towards Jefferson's famed "pursuit of happiness". For those much like myself, this will always include good friends, lively conversation, a shared bottle of wine, and wonderfully simple meals boasting of the earth's bounty.


Nota bene: I am neither paid nor do I receive recompense in exchange for applauding products or services within my blog.  I do so because I enjoy them.  If you are a kindred spirit, you too enjoy recommending nice things to fellow good eggs.

25 comments:

  1. I never think salads are boring, and your very eloquent story about this one proves it very well. Your cruets are very pretty.

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    1. Hello Columnist,

      I've never thought of salads as boring either. My mother always made sure we ate ours growing up, which may explain my love for them today.

      Glad you like the cruets. They bring me such joy whenever I use them tableside.

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  2. I could eat salad for every meal but I particularly like greens or tomatoes for breakfast – sets one up for the day. A good piece of cheddar, baguette and good salted butter to accompany an enormous pile of greens – the only other necessary would be a choir of malamutes howling Palestrina.

    Coincidentally, I bought the previously unknown (to me) Aleppo lettuce at our local farmer's market two weeks ago. Will do so again this weekend. BTW nasturtium leaves between slices of brown bread and butter are delicious.

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    1. Hello Blue,

      I too adore all types of salads, but not at breakfast. I do enjoy spinach with eggs and tomatoes though... delish!

      Thank you for the inspiration to make a nasturtium leaf sandwich, something unheard of to me prior to your comment above.

      As for the malamutes, yes please, any time! For years my fuzzy mixed-breed sang, talked, and howled at every opportunity (but, alas, did not know the words to Palestrina). It was not until he passed away at the grand old age of fifteen that I realized he was part malamute (always thought he was a chow/shepherd mix).

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  3. Your eloquent paean to Jeffersonian lettuce encourages me to make a luncheon salad post haste. Here in Boston, where spring came so late this year, home gardens (at least mine!) have not produced edible vegetables yet. However with winter banished and my first CSA pick-up on June 4, I shall look forward to glorious and varied fresh produce. Thank you for your wonderful blog-it is an inspiration!
    Karen

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    1. Hello Karen,

      I'm happy to read that Boston survived the brutal winter this year and is bouncing back. I was unfamiliar with the term CSA and just looked it up. What a wonderful scheme it seems to be.

      Enjoy your salad at lunch today, and so glad you are enjoying the blog.

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  4. I have a salad nearly everyday either for lunch or dinner and love experimenting with the different greens I find at the farmers market. I wish I had a garden to grow my own!

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    1. Hello AD,

      Fear not! I am certain if you have enough room for a shallow planting container or two (perhaps on a balcony), you too can grow your own salad. I've done this in the past with baby mesclun mixes, known as "cut and come again". I was astonished at the rate of growth and how many leaves I could harvest from two shallow clay pots.

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  5. Hello:

    We have found this post most interesting and intriguing and how exciting for you that you should be able to replicate the same salad as was served to Jefferson well over two hundred years ago. That you used a similar simple dressing and ate at 4.00pm adds to the sense of adventure.

    During our gardening days we had a small, intensive kitchen garden in which salad leaves were always a priority. Nowadays, here in Hungary, it is very difficult to be able to buy anything, and this is from the local market, that is not an Iceberg lettuce. How we envy you your 'antique' supply.

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    1. Hello Jane and Lance,

      Beyond the obvious advantages of living where you do (such beautiful architecture with a thriving cultural scene), I think I would have a difficult time living there if fresh produce was difficult to buy. I wonder if people are able to grow their own through allotments. Are there such things in Hungary?

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  6. What a lovely blog you have created, Chronica Domus. I've only just discovered it (through Reggie Darling, who seems to been "on leave"?) and am enjoying it immensely - so much so, I've spent a leisurely afternoon reading every post from the first to this last. I'm in the "other" hemisphere so our seasons are out of synch but it's a pleasure to read about the goings-on in your neck of the woods from afar.

    So far you've inspired me to try my hand at making marmalade (yum!) and cheese. I'll let you know how I get on.

    Best wishes

    Spud (Melbourne, Australia)

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    1. P.S. Oh and I've ordered some Spotted Aleppo lettuce seeds as a surprise for my husband whose a keen gardener!

      Spud.

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    2. Hello Spud,

      Delighted to make your acquaintance. Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment. It is always fun to discover that my readers are lurking in all corners of the world. I am also happy to read that you are enjoying the blog and it has been an inspiration for you to try your hand and marmalade and cheese making.

      I am certain your husband will have great success with the Spotted Aleppo lettuce. Pick it while the leaves are young and tender (delish!) for a taste of what Jefferson enjoyed all those years ago. Do let me know how you get on.

      CD

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  7. Here in Georgia we have to grow our lettuce in the early Spring because of the heat, otherwise I would rush to buy some of those seeds right now. The best produce I have ever had was in Portugal. Everything, particularly the strawberries and the lettuce, tasted just as they should. What a difference. It must be the soil and the fact they don't use all the pesticides and stuff to make them look pretty.

    When you mentioned Spanish vinegar did you use Sherry vinegar from Jerez? If not try it. I am sure you can find it easily where you live. I always have some in my pantry, we also are lovers of salads, particularly my daughter.

    Jefferson was a great lover of wine and he used to have cases of the Grand Crus imported from Bordeaux for Monticello. I guess you could call him the first importer of wines in this country. There are extensive notes at Monticello on every wine he imported. Have you read the Millionaire's Vinegar?

    The cruets are beautiful. Is that Val St. Lambert crystal on your wine glass? My mother has that pattern

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    1. Dear Lindaraxa,

      I found your comment about the produce in Portugal really interesting. I often tell my husband the best potatoes I ever ate were in Cyprus, where they are grown in red earth (similar to the color at Monticello) and, of course, in the scorching Mediterranean sun.

      Yes, the vinegar is indeed from Jerez, and like you, we are never without a bottle in the larder.

      The wine glass is actually an English Regency period white wine glass (not intended for red at all - my bad!). I collect, and enjoy using glassware from this period and will likely do a post or two about it in the future.

      I think you should try to sow your lettuce in the early fall too (once the heat has subsided and prior to the bitter cold setting in). Lettuce grows at such a rapid rate that I'm sure you shall be successful in your efforts.

      Yes, Jefferson was quite the wine lover wasn't he? It does not surprise me to learn that he kept notes on every wine he consumed. I think he was almost obsessive with his notes on every aspect of his life (lucky for us that get to learn from him, I suppose). Now, off to research the book on vinegar you mention. Sounds like I shall have to add it to my ever increasing pile, thank you!

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    2. The book is actually about the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold which supposedly belonged to Thomas Jefferson. It is titled The Billionaire's Vinegar. Left out a few zeroes. Here's a good recap of the book. http://www.decanter.com/news/wine-news/529950/brad-pitt-to-star-in-the-billionaire-s-vinegar

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    3. Yes, of course, my husband just mentioned the title of this book to me when I posted this story. He thinks we already have it in our library so I shall be hunting for it later today. Thank you for the recommendation. It sounds like a fascinating tale.

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  9. Hello CD,

    Just returned from the French Quarter. While there, I was able to visit 'Lucullus', a store I have wanted to see for over 20 years. I think you would like it. A real treat was being served a café au lait, made by the manager.

    Salads are one of my loves. In my younger years, I grew many kinds of lettuce and sought out heirloom seeds. As a fan of Thomas Jefferson, I applaud your salad choice. Sherry vinegar is what I use for my faux Caesar salad dressing.

    Thank you for the treat that is your blog...J.W.


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    1. Hello J.W., thank you for filling me in on your trip (you did mention you had planned to visit the city in one of your earlier comments).

      I know Lucullus very well through Mr. Dunn's wonderfully informative and beautifully illustrated book. It is a place, like you, I have wanted to visit for many years and will do so one day I hope. Did you purchase a little treasure or two to bring home with you while sipping your coffee?

      I'm happy to read you too have sought heirloom seeds for your own garden. I'm working on a post all about this very topic that I hope to publish shortly.

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    2. Yes, I did purchase two little treasures. One was Mr. Dunn's book which he will autograph upon his return from Paris. The other was a tiny antique French porcelain 'bean' in the shape of a tea canister that I will use the next time I make galette des rois for the Epiphany.

      I will look forward to your post on heirloom seeds.

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    3. Oh, you will certainly enjoy the book, one of my favorites, and where else would one find a "bean" for such a special cake but Lucullus, of course. How very special!

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    4. The book arrived yesterday. Under our names, Mr. Dunn surprised me by inscribing, "Let them - eat cake on the Epiphany! Laissez les bons temps rouler!"

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    5. What a wonderfully witty inscription, especially pertinent to your little purchase of the bean. So very thoughtful of him. You are indeed a lucky girl.

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