Everything you need to know about: Corn Salad
10th June 2016
Well, I call it corn salad. You may know this plant by another name as it has quite a few. It also goes by lambs lettuce, mâche, field salad, field greens and valerianella to name but a few. Corn salad is a nickname the plant gained due to the fact that it was often found popping up a weed in grain fields. In Germany they also call it rapunzel and it is believed that it was corn salad that the father of the eponymous heroine of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale was stealing from the sorceress’ garden.
Corn salad grows low to the ground and in a rosette form with spatulated leaves. The rosette form makes it very popular but the fact that it grows so low to the ground creates harvesting and production issues in commercial crops which adds extra cost.
Corn salad grows as a wild plant throughout Europe and was traditionally foraged from the fields by peasants. Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie, royal gardener to King Louis XIV introduced it to the king as a salad in the 17th century and transformed it from a weed eaten by the poor into a an extremely popular French food item. Thomas Jefferson was also a big fan and he grew it in his personal vegetable garden.
IGP promotional advert for mâche
As a cultivated crop mâche has IGP status in the area around Nantes in the Loire Valley of France. France is the primary producer of mâche in Europe. Traditionally the crop is grown outside in open field production although more and more producers in the area are now investing in multi span tunnels. The plants are grown on beds covered in sand which has been extracted from the River Loire. The sand helps keep the seeds warm at the point of germination and also aids the harvesting process. Fields that have been used for mâche production for many years can take on an undulating form as the sand builds up over time.
Mâche production in Nantes
The Italians have also become important producers of corn salad over the last few decades and the majority of the Italian production of corn salad happens under single span tunnels in Bergamo in the North of Italy. Over the last five years several large growers have started to move their production down South, focusing on the Latina area, near Rome and also on using farms already established for babyleaf production under multi span tunnels in Battipaglia, near Salerno.
Germany also grows large amounts of corn salad, although their domestic market prefers a larger leafed variety to consumers in the rest of Europe. In the UK we have historically never been able to grow corn salad with viable yields but UK farmers continue to try to establish UK corn salad production here.
The extra cost involved in corn salad production comes from the fact that you must harvest the product right at ground level and that therefore the raw product in the crates contains soil and/or sand. This means that before the product can be bagged (or even sent to processing factories) it needs to be cleaned. So corn salad production involves large washing lines with two or three baths and a vibrating bouncing belt sorting line.
Traditionally corn salad was a winter only crop but the advent of the supermarkets and their global food supply chains meant that it had to adapt to all year round production. It remains at its happiest in temperate climes so the middle of winter and the middle of summer can be tricky for producers. The crop cycle varies from 30 days in the hot months to up to 100 days in the cold months (which makes quality control at this point in the year a difficult task).
Corn salad has excellent nutritional stats. It would definitely be a winner in a game of salad top trumps! It contains high levels of vitamin C, beta carotene, iron, potassium and even omega 3 fatty acids. It eats well with a slightly nutty and velvety, buttery flavour. It is extremely adaptable in all kinds of salad recipes, hot or cold.
Any corn salad recipes anyone has to share please do send them to us, we will aim to feature them on our weekly recipe section!