Emer McLysaght of Oh My God What A Complete Aisling fame has described the Irish salad plate as not just a salad but a state of mind. In fact, there is an outbreak of nostalgia at the moment for the ‘Irish Summer Salad’. Was it not just called ‘salad’ and by virtue of the fact you were eating it, it must be summer in Ireland? The assembling of that particular combination of ingredients meant the sun was shining and we were breaking away from spuds and meat for the dinner – there was a feeling of liberation about it.
For a certain generation, salad always meant ham, egg, lettuce, tomato and scallions – no, they weren’t called spring onions, that came in around the time that ‘fries’ replaced ‘chips’ in our vocabulary. Potato salad, pickled beetroot and coleslaw were optional extras, but salad cream was a key player, served in dollops just glistening on cups of butterhead lettuce. Freshly sliced white bread with a thick spread of butter was the ultimate side dish.
My memories of eating salad as a child always seemed to happen outside, though we didn’t have outdoor furniture or decks on which to serve it. Maybe we brought the chairs and kitchen table outside and made a whole event of it!
Now, a mug of milky tea was the usual accompaniment here, but just as I gradually introduced radical elements like artichokes and olives to my family’s salad tea, so too did a drop of wine start to appear in the mix. This summer it will be that cute little cube of Rosé from Domaine de L’Hortus.
We visited the Orliac family at their beautiful vineyard at the foot of Mount Hortus near Montpellier a few years ago. Yves, one of the family, cooked us amazing local beef on the barbeque, and bowls of fresh and crunchy vegetables from their garden were passed around. The taste that stands out most in my memory, though, was that of their own tomatoes, all shapes and sizes and colours, eaten like sweets out of the bowl. That intense tomatoey flavour, with their fruity, vibrant rosé, was the magic pairing of the day.
I try to recreate that sunny evening every chance I get.
I’m going to go all farmers market on my Irish salad, picking up some Caherbeg ham from Rosscarbery. No slimy supermarket ham for me and my rosé! Some elements will definitely remain unchanged: butterhead lettuce – you’re in. Likewise the boiled egg, potato salad and coleslaw. Crunchy, eye-popping scallions, a must. Salad cream, ah here! and I’m not a fan of pickled beetroot, though himself will be looking for it so we’d better keep it. There are fabulous, tasty local tomatoes available which, with the help of a few acres of plastic, are almost as good as those southern French sweeties of my memories, so they’ll be the star of the show.
Funny enough, in a very random initiative of the Irish government of the 1950s, tomato houses were developed all over Donegal. My mother describes very vividly visiting her aunt’s greenhouse, and the powerful aroma of tomato leaves warmed under the glass. I can almost smell this, and see my aunt washing scallions under an outside tap to have with them. This is the salad I’ll be channeling with my little cube of vinous summer. Nicely chilled, it’ll bring a burst of sunshine with every sip, and take our minds of that arctic breeze blowing around our ankles.
Photos: Thady Trá Photography