The State of Undress, or how the salad got its dressing.

Huth Bequest. British Museum. Vol. XIII. 15th Century.

Huth Bequest. British Museum. Vol. XIII. 15th Century.

While I recover from a passing  brush with a surgeon’ s knife here is a ‘reblog’ of a piece written some years ago.

The State of Undress, or how the salad got its dressing.

May be the story went something like this.  In the distant past, when men were men and plates were few, only the more fortunate ate from tables.  As dogs licked at the diners’ feet, the less fortunate waited for the soggy remnants of bread that the privileged had eaten off.  The salad, like the rest of the meal, was simple and unadorned.  This is not such a bad state of affairs.  Think of a thin well-grilled steak on a pile of pungently flavoured, undressed rocket, or arugula, leaves.  It is delicious.  The rocket stands up to the char-grilled meat, the bitter/sour leaves opening the salivary glands like freshly squeezed lemon juice.  And while my mouth, and no doubt yours, is watering like a Pavlovian poodle, strong flavoured salad leaves sounds good with other kinds of grilled flesh; chicken, lamb kebabs as well as halluomi, the cheese that thinks its meat.

But how did we come to the present state where we can’t have a salad without one of a host of highly flavoured dressings?  Let us return to the baronial hall and my story.  The head cook has come out of the kitchen in great excitement, he has thickened the bloody juices from the spit and invented ‘the sauce’; so varying the palate of the Dark Age diet at a stroke.  But no, complains the Duchesse, the simple salad leaves could not compete with this new richness.  Acknowledging the seriousness of the problem she ignores etiquette and passes the salt dish to high and low.  Despite her intervention she has to admit defeat as the salad leaves wilt before their eyes, no matter how sparingly the salt is sprinkled on.

Fearing another outbreak of chlorotic anaemia before the forthcoming Brueghelian winter the castle’s apothecary suggests a solution – apply a thin film of olive oil over the leaves and they will be protected from the salt, so making them palatable once again.  All agree.  Fresh leaves are brought from the kitchen garden and, like Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden, they are dressed for the first time – the greater the anticipation, however, the more bitter the disappointment.  ‘This is like swallowing an oil slick’ the Dauphin exclaims.  All murmur in despairing agreement and fall silent.

Dining room scene from the Luttrell Psalter,  circa 1325.

Dining room scene from the Luttrell Psalter, circa 1325.

Just as the household staff come forward to leave the tables ‘deserted’ for the sweet course a pale and thoughtful young girl orders the kitchen staff to pass around a little bottle of pungent fermented juice to pour sparingly onto the glistening leaves.  The banqueters all smack their lips with pleasure at the salad that is appetising and has miraculously kept it texture.

Encouraged by the company she continues to experiment finally emulsifying the oil and vinegar, adding seasonings appropriate to the leaves and dish it accompanies; mustard, garlic, ginger, honey, herbs, spices and cream.  What was the name of the inventive girl that adorned the castle’s table?   Why it must be Princesse Vinaigrette herself – piquant, sharp and enlivening.

A story that is just as plausible as the Earl of Sandwich, and potentially more instructive.


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