Nosh on Mâche all Winter Long
"It's spelled 'm-â-c-h-e,' not 'm-o-s-h,' " I explained to my young friend, "with the little French rooftop over the 'a'. Here, try it." I handed her a three-inch head of bright green foliage, shaped like a tiny bouquet. She nibbled it, enjoying its slightly chewy texture.
I'd wager that anyone would like mâche, even at first taste, because there is nothing in its flavor to offend -- no sharpness, no bitterness. It's mild and soft, which is why the French also call it doucette: the little sweet one. Mâche heads are fluffy, with a loft that lends volume to a salad. Its slightly cupped leaves, joined at the base, hold a dressing well. Perhaps you know it by an old English name, corn salad, a reference to its habit of growing wild in grain fields, the word "corn" denoting grains in general, not the corn of the New World.
You will rarely see this cool-weather green for sale, because it is too tender and perishable for easy transport. In Europe, especially in the Alps, it's a crop for winter because of its cold-tolerance, and I have never grown a green so winterproof.
My friend Verena Stoll, who grew up in the Swiss city of Basel in the 1950s, recalls the arrival of mâche in the October markets, trundled through the streets on wooden carts by farm women from nearby Alsace. She loves it dressed with vinaigrette, a finely diced hard-boiled egg, croutons, and crumbled bacon. "This is the crop that gets us through the winter," she says. Nowadays mâche is greenhouse-grown in France's Nantes Basin, near the mouth of the Loire. There are some California growers as well. But it shines the most as a home crop.
A lush bed of mâche has fed our household all winter in an unheated greenhouse. It also does fine in a cold frame. We harvest the little heads by running a small serrated knife just under the soil surface, severing them from the roots. After a thorough washing, they are tossed whole in a salad bowl. When the days lengthen past 10 hours, and some mâche heads enlarge to four inches or more, I pinch them at the base of the plant to release the individual leaves. Soon after that the plants start to go to seed, and while bolted mâche is still tasty, I like to have a young spring crop coming along to follow the winter one.
There is no such thing as summer mâche. It will not even germinate in warm weather. But a crop sown in early fall will reach maturity in time for the cold season. A robust salad of mâche with baked beets is the best winter tonic I know, no matter how you spell it.
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