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Two influences from my youth have governed what I do with salads until very recently.
The first is, of course, that abomination known as ’salad cream’ - a wickedly over-acid parody of mayonnaise that tells you everything about the arrogant philistinism of the British in the face of ’foreign food’ (the more sophisticated used Heinz mayonnaise in my youth, but I could never tell the difference: perhaps this was just a ruse by HJ Heinz to capture the snob-Philistines who thought they were too sophisticated for salad cream).
The legacy of this experience is that I am quite happy to use decent mayonnaise as a dip for salads - something I’m sure few self-respecting French eaters would do.
The second is what used to be called ’French dressing’, which is what we sophisticates used to use instead of salad cream in the fifties and sixties and later learned to call ’vinaigrette’. For some reason - perhaps because it was my first ’public’ act of culinary creativity - I can vividly remember being invited to make this at the house of an old school friend when I was 16 or 17 (his dad was a seriously famous painter, and he himself was later in a top-rank rock band, but I won’t embarrass him by name-dropping). I know that my friend’s Mum suggested chives from the garden (something I had never heard of until that moment), and I recall putting some sugar in with the oil and vinegar, but beyond that the details have faded.
Oil and vinegar dressings have stayed with me, but lately I’ve begun to find the conventional vinaigrette much too acid for my taste.
In Où Est Le Garlic(1965), Len Deighton gives a mix of 6 tablespoons ’best quality’ oil, 2 tablespoons ’finest’ vinegar, salt, pepper and a ’pinch’ of dry mustard. Given the quality of oil and vinegar available to those who didn’t, like me, shop in Soho in the Sixties, this produced a pretty ordinary dressing.
As with all my sauces, I mix vinaigrette to taste, and with the best oils and vinegars I can get today I end up with proportions nearer 6:1 than Deighton’s 3:1.
I also now know that mustard is a powerful emulsifier as well as an important flavouring. If you put more than ’a pinch’ in vinaigrette it stops the sauce separating.
Finally, I cannot imagine making a vinaigrette without an aromatic - usually garlic.
Picking up on Rick Stein’s use of Greek yoghurt in his Marie Rose Saucenaturellement) and adjusted carefully with just enough salt and white wine vinegar. This makes an almost white, dressing that adds a touch of acid and moist creaminess to salads without masking the flavour (if any) of the vegetables - minimalist, perhaps, but a refreshing contrast to the over-garlicked-and-herbed and excessively acid ’French dressings’ to which we are so often subjected.
You can use crème fraîche or fromage frais as alternatives to the yoghurt. Personally I avoid the low-fat versions, but then I’ve already confessed to being a fat addict.
If you want to play games with this - and why not? - you could try using flavoured mayonnaises (the Mayonnaise au Citron and Mayonnaise de Dijon I always buy on my way home from French trips add a touch of lemon or mustard). Alternatively you could use a flavoured vinegar (tarragon or whatever) but unless you like your dressings a lot sharper than I do there may not be enough to influence the taste. You can warm the wine with a crushed clove of garlic and some herbs, leave it to cool and then strain it into the mixture. Or you can compromise the creamy smoothness and pristine colour of the dressing by adding very finely chopped garlic and herbs.
For many salads, I find a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a grind of salt and pepper quite sufficient, though many British palates would find oil without balancing acidity a bit hard to accept.
The phrase ’olive oil’ occurs hundreds of times in my recipes. I rarely use anything else in the kitchen - sunflower for chips, groundnut for stir-fries, sesame for seasoning Chinese-style food and the nut oils mentioned in the next section for salads, but for everyday cooking and eating it’s extra virgin olive oil for me.
I’ve tried many different kinds. I’ve bought exotic, Italian-labelled bottles from the local deli, supermarket bottles in France, oil from Nyons (the olive capital of Provence), oil from Bordighera (my friend Giorgio’s holiday village on the Italian Riviera), oil from the co-operative mill in Caromb (where my friends Anne and Jeff have their house), oil in a 2½-litre demijohn from a local greengrocer on the Siena ring road (I still store my oil in this out of nostalgia), and oil from Sainsbury’s.
They all have their different characters - and prices - but I have to say that Sainsbury’s own-brand extra virgin olive oil is excellent and very reasonably priced. I buy two one-litre bottles every month or so and tip them into the Siena demijohn, and I’ve got one of those superb Italian-style oil-cans with a long, tapering spout which enables you to drizzle the oil with great accuracy. Mine’s stainless steel rather than tin-plate, but I don’t mind sacrificing authenticity for durability. It lives beside the cooker and goes to the table whenever it’s needed. It probably saves me quite a lot of money, because drizzling oil into the frying pan from the can is a lot more precise than glugging it in from the heavy demijohn, and trickling a finely-judged quantity over a chicken so I can brush it before roasting is a definite economy.
Other luxury oils
Unfortunately, one of the very few things I love and Patricia doesn’t like at all is walnuts, and this extends to their most delicious derivative, walnut oil. However, as we often serve our oils and dressings at the table rather than ’tossing’ the salads, this isn’t a real problem. (I hate this moronic use of the word ’toss’, particularly when used in a menu - ’freshly tossed mixed leaves’. Is one who tosses a tosser?. The French use ’turn’.
Walnuts and walnut oil are a major component of the cuisine in the Dordogne and Lot areas, and when I was there I bought a kilo of nuts from a grower at the roadside to bring home. They were superb - quite unlike the walnuts we get here, whether in their shells for Christmas or shelled in little plastic bags.
French supermarkets sell quite decent huile de noix in half-litre bottles at reasonable prices (note that noix does mean ’nut’, and is used in phrases such as ’nut of butter’, but that used alone it means ’walnut’ - a hazelnut is une noisette, a cashew is un noix de cajou, a coconut is un noix de coco and so on). However, when I was in Auvergne a few years ago, my friend Phillippe took me to a picturesque village called Charroux where an ancient nut mill still produces wonderfully fragrant stone-ground huile de noix and huile de noisettes - and, amazingly, vinaigre de noix, a very fine pale vinegar with an unmistakable scent of walnuts. I was advised to dilute the nut oils with several parts of a tasteless oil such as sunflower, as they are very strongly flavoured, whereas the supermarket variety - pure though it is - does not need diluting. (The mill also makes superb mustards: I bought one that had been devised for a posh local restaurant and it was spectacularly delicious.)
Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.
This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.