Iceberg lettuce, once the old standby, must now compete with an array of fresh lettuces with names such as Lollo Rossa, Frisee, and Rouge D'hiver available to North County consumers. Recent rains are ensuring a bountiful supply of the gourmet greens.
Scott Murray was one of the first North County farmers to specialize in baby lettuces--Lollo Rossa (a red-tinted leaf originally from Italy) Red Oak Leaf, and Frisee (a frilly-leafed, French variety) among them.
"To be a specialty farmer, you have to be part research scientist, part businessman, and part marketing expert," says Murray, while packing dozens of heads of baby lettuce into boxes bound that same day for Chicago.
At Murray Farms, he grows mizuna, a Japanese green, in addition to 17 varieties of lettuce. Some seeds can cost up to $120 a pound--but their steep price is offset by weekly plantings and year-round production.
For Andrea Peterson of Peterson and Pio Specialty Produce, "baby lettuce really fits our land and our labor." Indeed, budding heads of baby lettuce cover several acres of the Peterson farm nestled among rolling hills abutting Camp Pendleton. The organically grown lettuce is watered by drip irrigation and is a year-round crop because of the frost-free climate.
Peterson was introduced to baby lettuce by a produce broker several years ago, and the word "mesclun" became part of her vocabulary. Mesclun (sounds a little like "mez-clan") refers to a mixture of pre-washed, pre-separated baby lettuce leaves, ready to toss into the salad bowl.
Once an Italian specialty, the leafy blend became a favorite of chefs in the south of France, who soon exported the idea to the United States. These days, Peterson produces a 4-ounce mix-pack of uncut (so it lasts longer) baby lettuce.
"It's a convenience food, just a nice retail size for a quick salad," she says. She sometimes adds edible flowers to her mix.
Depending upon the season, the Peterson mesclun is made up of four to seven varieties of lettuce including Red Oak leaf lettuce, their most popular; Green Oak, and red and green Romaine Rougette du Midi, a sweet, ruby-edged variety.
Vista Verde Farms of Escondido has developed what it calls the International Salad Bar--a sturdy plastic container filled with pots that holds up to eight varieties of lettuce. "It's all the lettuce two people can eat three times a week for three months," explains Vista Verde owner Mary Eckstrand.
Those purchasing the compact package need only pull out the outer leaves necessary for one meal, and enjoy their own mesclun mix night after night.
One serving of lettuce contains 25 calories, and only 1 gram of fat, as well as 8% of the US recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C.
Murray Farms, 2562 Foothill, Vista, CA 92084. 941-6919. Wholesale and retail from the farm: bag of mixed lettuce (enough for four meals, says Murray): $1.25. Call for availability.
Peterson and Pio Specialty Produce. 439-6466. Sells to the trade and at the Vista Farmer's Market where mesclun sells for $1 a bag.
Vista Verde Farms, 9751 Lilac Rd., Escondido, CA 92024. 728-3874. International Salad Bar available at Lucky stores in throughout the county and at Advantage in Escondido. Price varies according to store. Available from Vista Verde Farms for $8. Pick up only.