“my salad days when I was green in judgment” – William Shakespeare

Something’s gotta give
One of the things I realised during lockdown was that although I have eaten healthily – wholefood and vegetarian – for 40 years, I had fallen into the habit of eating too much, too often. Indulging a love of carb-laden treats in cafés, sampling home baking + doing very little exercise = the lethal combination that catches up with you eventually. It was only a matter of time.

Lock down good habits
To get fitter and healthier for most is not a quick fix. It requires taking control for yourself, determination, incentive and a keen eye on the end goal. Lockdown provided those conditions and more. As the weeks rolled on, each one as routinely similar as the last, a revised way of eating set in, helped by a lack of distractions and diversions. Also helped by paring things back to a level of stripped down simplicity. My new salad eating regime proved sustainable and the benefits could be felt. It’s a way of eating that appeals to me – no shortage of flavours, textures, colours, plenty of ballast and no whiff of depriving yourself. Preparing and eating food remains enjoyable. Happy munching.

The good old salad days
My generation grew up with the plate salad as we liked to call it. And we did like to call it – we called it boring, monotonous, “rabbit” food. Deftly arranged lettuce leaves (only one or two varieties), cucumber and tomato slices (not even wedges – too hefty), spring onions (more recently rebranded as salad or bunched onions) and a radish flower for fancy occasions when you had both iced water and time available. A slice of boiled ham, tongue, tinned salmon or a Kraft cheese triangle if you were really lucky. New potatoes and a dollop of salad cream (runny mayonnaise for the uninitiated).

Left unders
When my mum was out at tea-time we would be left a plate salad, covered with a tea-towel (a clean one, mind). What lurked beneath was rarely a surprise. Plastic wrap was still considered “new fangled” and what a shame this ubiquitous food covering ever caught on. The only other salads I knew until I left home at 18 were potato salad and coleslaw both laden with gloop. There were few variations or substitutions and salad didn’t have a great press. Men avoided encounters of the green veg kind for fear of ridicule. It was seen as diet food for the unfortunates that had to resort to them.

Salads but not as we knew them
Roll on the 1980’s when I frequented wholefood cafés – Wharf Street Cafe, Leeds; Cranks, London; Food for Friends and Terre à Terre, Brighton; On the 8th Day, Manchester; Henderson’s, Edinburgh; The Moon, Kendal; York Wholefood and Sarah Brown’s Terrace Project, Scarborough to name some memorable trail-blazers. The plate salad was a thing of the past. Move over for platters heaped full of salads and helping yourself from a salad bar groaning with plantiferous variety. Choice, flexibility, creativity – anything goes and no one wanted to miss out!

Ideas migrate
People travelling between continents and those migrating with ideas about ingredients and cuisines did much to enrich the UK’s home grown food culture. As did the increase in eating out and taking away food, plus TV programmes and recipe books from such writers as Claudia Roden and Madhur Jaffrey, introducing other ways of putting foods together.

Take-aways, pubs, supermarkets, delis and fast food chains such as Leon, Pret and Itsu can be proud of salad offerings which hold their own alongside other dishes. And specialist food companies too deserve a shout-out including Belazu who manufacture Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern ingredients so that these flavours and traditions can be enjoyed at home.

Our food would be less than it is today without those who migrated to the UK and established businesses here. There are many more unsung heroes but examples of some who have influenced our food map are Kaushey and Mohan Patel from India who established Prashad in Yorkshire, Skye Gyngell from Australia who worked at Petersham Nurseries and then set up Spring, both in London and the Israeli chef and author Yotam Ottolenghi who made Middle Eastern food and ingredients popular with his restaurants in London where salad platters take centre stage.

It seems salad days are no longer limited to green …

Follow the yellow brick road to my Salad Days posts