Beating the cold with bitter leaves

Bitter leaves offer a welcome break from winter veg

Colder temperatures might get you reaching for the soups, stews and roast dinners, but sometimes you need a fresh taste alongside all that veg. Step forward winter salad, and more specifically, the bitter leaves such as dandelion, mustard, rocket and cress, whose peppery flavours warm you up in a very different way.

Farm manager Ed Scott is a veteran salad grower and polytunnel expert

Walking through the polytunnels, farm manager Ed Scott says even he was initially sceptical about growing salad in winter. “Everyone gets a lot of winter veg at this time of year, and actually a bag of salad once a month is really nice,” he says, crouching by the neat rows of dandelion leaves inside one of the big arched tunnels. The dandelion variety in question, Italiko, is different to the one found in most gardens, although they are also edible, as it grows vertically making it easier to pick and leaves are cleaner as this variety grows away from the soil.

The winter salad leaves are known as ‘cut and come again’, explains Scott, as they will be harvested around every four weeks, depending on the leaf, from November until March or April. A side-effect of this technique is that the more peppery leaves, such as cress or mustard, tend to get spicier on every pick – believed to be an evolutionary trait as the plant tries harder to deter predators.

“You can also cook with these types of leaves, every now and then we might leave the dandelions to grow a bit longer and put out a recipe to cook with them, or you can do things like a risotto with rocket,” Scott continues, walking through the rows of tunnels which in summer are bursting with the heady smell of tomatoes, chillies and basil, and tropical-looking vines of cucumbers.

Under a cosy-looking layer of fleece are the green shoots of baby ruby chard, covered in the early stages to encourage it to grow. Then there’s the bright green frilly mustard leaves with their distinctive taste, and land cress, a cousin of water cress but grown in soil so it is safe from any risk of water-borne bacteria that water cress growers have to be so careful about.

Salanova is a red variety of Butterhead lettuce

And it’s not just bitter leaves that are selected for winter cropping – Butterhead lettuces are also a popular choice, explains Scott, holding up a beautiful dark red variety called Salanova, with its bi-coloured leaves bright green at the base and dark red at the head.

“They have a longer shelf-life and thick velvety leaves that are more cold resistant than something like a Cos lettuce, which is more watery so it doesn’t do too well in the frost because all the cells freeze and then burst,” he says.

Cut by hand, the bitter leaves and winter lettuces are harvested by teams of pickers through the day before being whisked off to the packhouse at Riverford HQ, less than a mile away. When it comes to food miles, there’s certainly nothing bitter in these tunnels, and as Scott says: “Every bag of salad we can produce here is one less lettuce that we have to import from Spain.”

5 responses to “Beating the cold with bitter leaves

  1. So pleased we’ll be getting bitter leaves in winter, so good for the Liver & Gallbladder.

  2. Mmmmm I’m not sure how I feel about growing salads in a poly tunnel. There are lots of veg available during winter that we grow very successfully in Britain without the use of poly tunnels. I accept they are useful additions to a garden environment but I would hate to see miles and miles of countryside obliterated by plastic poly tunnels just so that we can have exotic salads. Am I being unrealistic? I just feel we should eat what’s in season , we don’t need so much choice we don’t need to eat tomatoes in winter,they don’t taste anyway.
    If we ate food when it’s at its best we would look forward to each crop as it becomes available and be able to appreciate regional diffences. I won’t lecture but would love to hear how others feel about this.
    Have to say I am v v delighted with riverford and many thanks for all the work you do.

    • Hi Jan,
      Thanks for your comment.
      We only have a few poly tunnels on the farm and they are permanent fixtures so it is worth us making use of them during the winter.
      In addition to helping protect some of our more delicate crops against frost damage we can offer more seasonal produce for just that bit little longer before becoming unavailable.
      All our tunnels are unheated and the plastic coverings last for years before they need replacing.

  3. Looking forward to tasting your bitter salad leaves.
    I eat a lot of veg, but am looking for individual items like leeks and parsnips as I only cook for myself and although I freeze my veg I don’t want to waste any.
    I recently bought leeks from you that were beautiful but I had a job finding recipes for three very large leeks!
    Many Thanks 😊

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