The chilled bowls in front of us are filled with a mixture of delicate and tender salad greens, all grown in my garden for a moment such as this. The French call such a variety of greens mes clun . It means "mixed," and in the French spoken near Nice it's pronounced mes-clah.
Taste it and pretend that you are in Provence where people rush to market when the signs saying mesclun is for sale go up. The signs announce the arrival of surprising bits of taste: tender, buttery shoots, crisp little cones of lettuce, silky, loose leaves in many tones of green--some tinged red, others purple. Each flavor is superlative because it is as fresh as daybreak.
I think that the fragile mache , with a flavor that hints of hazelnut, is the star of such a mixture. It's also called lamb's lettuce and corn salad. Another favorite is what the French call roquette , the Italians call arugula, and we call rocket salad. The large leaves are hot and spicy, but if you pick it when it's finger-size, it has just enough bite to warm the palate. For a cooling counterpoint, a good mesclun has a few sprigs of chervil, a delicate herb that reminds me of fresh tarragon.
Then there's the soothing bounty of lettuces--'Romaine Ballon,' the dark lettuce of Nimes, perhaps, or 'Red Salad Bowl.' A bit of common cress and feathery endive alerts the senses and provides a cleansing touch of bitterness; so do its cousins, the leaf chicories and baby dandelion greens. You can keep thinking of the dandelion as a weed if you wish, but it contains a treasury of vitamins, iron and calcium. And we shouldn't omit the noble oak-leaf lettuce; it is tender even when mature and palm-sized.
We're lucky in Southern California: We can grow salads like this all year, even in a window box. For a gardener this is paradise. When the weather is cool, growth is slow, but the new leaves will keep coming if only a few at a time are cut. For me, one February sowing lasted three months. When temperatures are under 70 degrees Fahrenheit, you can usually plant and have a harvest within six weeks; in warmer weather, the salad bowl can be filled in three weeks.
All the seed for my patch of herbs and lettuces came from a single packet (which actually provides enough for three or more sowings). You can also create your own mesclun mix from individual packets. Racks in retail nurseries usually hold an average of seven leafy lettuces and several salad herbs, but seed catalogues have a bonanza to choose from. One such catalogue, from The Cooks Garden in Londonderry, Vt., is just for salad lovers.
The seeds will germinate better if they're exposed to light, and at first they need constant moisture. But soon they will be sprouting--some in only two days--and when they are just a few inches long they'll be ready for the salad bowl. (A quick rinse and gentle patting dry, plus the simplest oil and vinegar dressing, is all you need.) If you aren't careful, you may soon find you have more than you and your family can use. You may find a restaurant eager for your surplus. After all, mesclun is served at Alice Water's Chez Panisse in Berkeley as "garden salad."
Mail-order sources of mesclun include Le Jardin du Gourmet, West Danville, Vt. 05873; The Cooks Garden, P.O. Box 65, Londonderry, Vt. 05148; and Le Marche Seeds International, P.O. Box 566, Dixon, Calif. 95620.