What is mache lettuce?

Mild Mâche Is Easy to Grow

Once considered a coarse weed, mâche (mahsh) is now a chic salad green. Before French farmers began cultivating it in the 17th century, mâche (Valerianella locusta) was harvested from fields where it grew among cereal crops like corn, rye, and wheat―hence one of its common names, corn salad (it’s also known as lamb’s lettuce).

The sweet, slightly nutty leaves are tender and juicy. To truly appreciate this delicacy, serve mâche the traditional European way: lightly dressed with a simple vinaigrette. If you have hazelnut or walnut oil, this is the green to drizzle it on. The French also like to add chopped, hard-boiled eggs or sliced roasted beets. Mâche is good mixed with sharper-tasting greens like arugula or endive. Or try braising it lightly as you would spinach.

As you might expect, mâche grows as easily as a weed, but you’ll need to start from seed since plants are seldom sold. Sow this cool-season annual directly in the garden as soon as the soil is workable. Mâche is quite cold-tolerant, so late frosts won’t harm it. It grows slowly, taking up to 60 days to mature, but you can snip off and eat outer leaves while the plant is growing. The leaves stay sweet on the plant for quite a while without turning bitter. When temperatures top 80°, mâche wants to bolt (go to seed). Harvest most of the rosettes but let a few flowers form seeds; mâche self-sows readily, so next year’s crop is likely to seed itself.

E. Spencer Toy

Taste why the French relish this tender and juicy gourmet green (then plant some for yourself)

What it needs

• Cool air. Mâche seed germinates best when temperatures are 55° to 68°, making it suitable for planting in the early spring or in the fall.

• Sun or light shade. Desert gardeners can plant in a lightly shaded spot that doesn’t get afternoon sun.

• Moist soil. Keep soil moist until seeds germinate in 14 to 28 days; water regularly thereafter. Mulch the soil around plants.

• Modest space. V. locusta grows into small rosettes about 1 inch across. When seedlings are large enough to handle, thin to about 3 inches apart.

• Snail protection. The succulent leaves attract snails and slugs. Protect plants by putting out bait or growing them in raised beds encircled with copper bands. In desert areas, spread gravel mulch over the planting bed first, then sow right over it; seeds will fall through the cracks and plants will pop up through the stones.

Sources: John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds or 860/567-6086; Nichols Garden Nursery or 800/422-3985; Renee’s Garden ; Territorial Seed Co. or 800/626-0866

A simple salad

In a large bowl, whisk together 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon red or white wine vinegar, and 1 tablespoon minced shallot. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add 6 cups rinsed and crisped mâche (4 oz.) and 1/2 cup halved cherry tomatoes; gently toss. Makes 3 or 4 servings.

Produce Encyclopedia

Mache is a tender salad green consisting of several rosettes of dark green spoon-shaped leaves attached to a common stem. It has a mild flavor reminiscent of sweet hazelnuts with a buttery, velvety texture. Another common name is lamb’s tongue as it resembles the shape of the tongue of the lamb as well as being a food favorite of the flock.

Pack Size

1# Bag

Applications/Techniques

Mache is at its best when used when lightly dressed with a viniagrette and used as a simple salad or combined with other lettuces as part of a composed salad.

History

Corn salad was originally foraged by European peasants until the royal gardener of King Louis XIV, de la Quintinie, introduced it to the world. It has also been used as food in Britain for many centuries and appears in John Gerard’s Herbal of 1597 but only became commercially available there in the 1980s. It was grown commercially in London from the late 18th/early 19th century and appeared on markets as a winter vegetable. The common name corn salad refers to the fact that it often grows as a weed in wheat fields.

Flavor Friends

  • Apples
  • Beets
  • Cheese, goat
  • Endive
  • Lemon
  • Nuts
  • Olive Oil
  • Orange
  • Pomegranates
  • Potatoes
  • Shallots
  • Vinegar-Champagne, Sherry

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Your comments and tips

Post a comment or question Display Newest first | Oldest first, Show comments for New Zealand | for all countries 19 May 19, Ame (Australia – sub-tropical climate) Kings Seeds have corn salad, and also a winter mesclun mix which is good for cool planting 02 May 19, Diane Francis (New Zealand – temperate climate) Where can I buy lambs lettuce in Auckland, or can I buy it from you? 02 May 19, Liz at Gardenate (New Zealand – temperate climate) We do not sell seeds or plants through Gardenate. You could try Egmonts.co.nz for seeds. 09 Mar 19, Jes (New Zealand – temperate climate) In the comments about corn salad (valerianella locusta) it was recommended “Not suitable for growing in warm areas.” We came across it in southern italy and sicily where it was a staple in supermakets in Autumn (we visited Oct-Nov). Sicily is pretty warm! We are in Northland and will try some as an alternative winter salad. 01 Dec 18, Stephanie Lovatt (New Zealand – temperate climate) For on-going winter greens, let your corn salad go to seed each year. Free fresh greens in winter. 02 Dec 18, Mike (New Zealand – temperate climate) I left a Honi Tsai Tai plant go to seed – loved watching the bees come each morning for the flowers as I had my cup of tea each morning. When finished I threw it under the mango tree. I have had 2 big flushes (dozens of plants) of seedlings come up in the last 6 weeks. I find it hard to germinate the seeds but under the mango heaps. 22 Aug 18, Pamela Dawson (New Zealand – temperate climate) Are seeds for corn salad plants readily available in nurseries – first I have heard of it from a friend and would like to try growing some. If available what is it known as on the seed packet. 22 Aug 18, Liz (New Zealand – temperate climate) Pam, you can buy corn salad seeds from online suppliers, like Egmont Seeds.

What Are Mache Greens: The Use And Care Of Mache Greens

Looking for a good interim salad crop while you’re patiently waiting for spring greens? Look no further. Mache (rhymes with squash) just may fit the bill.

Corn salad greens look like small rosettes with six to eight, spoon-shaped velveteen leaves branching out from its thin delicate stem. Corn salad greens are found extremely low to the ground. Combined with their extreme delicacy, harvesting is an exacting and tedious task resulting in a higher priced gourmet green when found in the market.

Native to France, mache (Valerianella locusta) or corn salad greens, as they are also known, has been cultivated under the name doucette since the 17th century. There are over 200 varieties of mache, each with a slightly different nuance. In the late 20th century, the man who brought us prepped bagged salads, Todd Koons, introduced corn salad greens to the North American market.

What are Mache Greens?

Okay, so what are mache greens? Mache greens are a cold weather salad green akin to Tatsoi and are named thus as they are planted after the corn harvest. Not only does mache go by the name corn salad green, but is sometimes referred to as lamb’s lettuce or fetticus. Corn salad greens are high in the nutrients of vitamins B and C, iron, folic acid and potassium.

How to Use Mache Greens

Mild in flavor with a nuttiness and lettuce-like crispness, corn salad greens are often combined with more flavorful greens, such as mustard. Tossed salads, either alone or combined with other more piquant greens, or used as a lightly sautéed vegetable in omelets, soups or rice are suggestions as to how to use mache greens.

Corn salad greens can be steamed and served like spinach or used as a bed for placing other foods on. Any preparation involving heat should be done at the last second as mache is extremely delicate and will wilt to an extreme if cooked too long.

Care of Mache Greens

Care of mache greens requires a sunny location in well drained soil. Corn salad greens are tolerant of cool weather so may be sown in September through May, with early fall up to Thanksgiving, being an ideal planting time.

Either broadcast mache seeds or plant in rows 12-18 inches by 6 inches apart. Be patient. These little beauties take their time germinating, about a month and even then the plants are on the runty side.

Harvest in March when there are six to eight leaves; and as you harvest, you are naturally thinning the crop. Wash well as mache’s spoon-shaped leaves tend to hide dirt. About a dozen corn salad greens are needed for a serving when harvesting in March, but by the end of April fewer are needed as the plants will have tripled in size.

By May, mache plants bolt and become stringy and rangy. At this time, it’s all over and time for the spring greens after enjoying your very own garden fresh greens during the late winter months.

Corn mache: Perfect for the winter vegetable garden

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I paid a visit to my winter vegetable garden over the weekend and discovered that one of my favorite cold-weather crops, corn mache, was still cranking out the green. While most of my winter vegetable garden was decimated by the deer, these delicious, succulent greens were safely tucked under the protection of milk jug cloches. I couldn’t have been happier to see those little green sprouts surrounded by the snow. Needless to say, I snipped off a few leaves and enjoyed them in my dinner salad.

Why corn mache is a staple the winter vegetable garden

Corn mache, also called corn salad and lamb’s lettuce, is one of the most cold-tolerant vegetables you can grow, making it a perfect choice for the winter vegetable garden. It’s tough as nails but delivers a sweet, nutty flavor to the salad bowl.

How to grow corn mache

To grow it, I sow seeds directly into the garden twice a year; first in the very early spring and then again in the fall. The spring-planted crop is ready to harvest about two months after the seeds are sown. I harvest only the outer-most leaves of the plant while leaving the growing point intact to allow for repeat harvests. Once summer temperatures hit, mache shifts into flowering mode and turns bitter. I often allow the plants to flower and set seed because mache easily self-sows.

Come mid-September, I head out to the garden to plant more seeds. The sprouts that grow from these seeds become the mature plants in my winter vegetable garden. When the temperatures really drop, usually in late October or early November, I put a cap-less milk jug, with the bottom cut out, over each one of the plants. You could also use a commercially made cloche to cover your plants or even a mini plastic greenhouse tunnel, if you want something a bit fancier.

Underneath these milk jug cloches are rosettes of corn mache, a delicious, cold-tolerant salad green.

As winter arrives, the plants stay cozy inside the cloches. The lettuce and arugula I had under separate cloches died off after a few nights with single digit temperatures, but not the corn mache.

Types of corn mache

There are many different varieties of corn mache, each with a subtly different flavor and form. I’ve grown several different types over the years and have developed a preference for the extremely cold-tolerant varieties such as ‘Big Seeded’ and ‘Gala’.

How to eat corn mache

Corn mache is an excellent salad green that can be eaten just like lettuce, arugula, or mesclun. Its thick, succulent texture really fills up the salad bowl and blends beautifully with other salad greens.

If you’re looking for an addition to your winter vegetable garden, give corn mache a try.

For more on growing winter veggies, check out these articles:

  • Three quick steps to winter carrots
  • Growing salad mustard
  • Cold frame gardening tips
  • Edible sunflower microgreens

The corn mache tucked inside this milk jug cloche is ready to pick all winter long.

What’s growing in your garden this winter?

Mache

Mache (Valerianella locusta)

by Stephanie Wrightson, Sonoma County Master Gardener

Mâche (also called “corn salad”) is a small, annual salad green that has been cultivated in Europe for centuries. Mâche does not have a long shelf life once it is harvested and is expensive. And, like leaf lettuce, mâche is mild tasting and a wonderful green to introduce to your children. These are great reasons to grow this delicate, nutty-tasting green along with other leafy vegetables.
While lettuce seeds and potted seedlings are easily available, mâche seedlings may be difficult to find. Like lettuce, mâche varieties affect leaf size and color intensity. So, consult a seed catalog or visit a seed bank such as Baker Creek in Petaluma (click here for vegetable seed sources). You may start seeds in a flat indoors four to six weeks prior to your projected planting date or direct-seed when optimal (as soon as the ground can be worked, or earlier if you have a coldframe or can protect the tender plants from heavy rain with crop cover). The Sonoma County Master GardenerVegetable Planting Summaryprovides additional guidance.
Mâche is low to the ground and is a small, loosely-bunched plant that grows in a rosette and should be spaced 2 inches apart in rows. Therefore, plant mâche with your low-growing lettuce in an area that has nutrient-rich soil and is well draining. A raised bed is ideal but, if you have limited space, consider a large pot in the morning sun (be advised that plants will bolt when Sonoma County temperatures rise in early summer). Follow the seed package directions for planting depth and keep the soil evenly moist. When mâche plants have three to four true leaves, thin to 2 inches and, like leaf lettuce, “harvest and thin” as it grows. Because of its shallow root system, keep the bed weeded to reduce competition.
In general, cool season crops are threatened by fewer insect pests and plant diseases than warm season varieties. In coastal regions, leafy greens may be affected by downy mildew. Good cultural practices reduce this risk: space or thin to provide good air circulation between plants; allow the soil to dry between irrigations; avoid overhead watering to keep leaves as dry as possible; and remove and destroy any infected leaves.
Mâche is used fresh. Pick once the leaves have reached a desirable size. Because of a relatively short shelf life, only pick the amount needed. If necessary, store greens in your refrigerator crisper drawer for a few days.
“Foraged greens” generally have more nutritional value than lettuce…mâche has three times as much vitamin C and contains heart-healthy Omega-3, for example. Besides using mâche in a mix of greens, mâche can be cooked like spinach and used in soups, sandwiches and stuffing. With mild flavor and tender consistency, mâche and leaf lettuce are a good salad base for stronger tasting and textured ingredients – for example, try them with fresh citrus and avocado, toss with a fig balsamic vinegar and olive oil dressing, and top with crunchy slivers of baked tortillas; or try a mix with halved grapes, spring onions, a grape seed oil and balsamic vinegar dressing, and toasted pecans. If you grow kitchen herbs, use mâche and leaf lettuce as a base for herb salad along with crunchy, seasonal raw vegetables.

From issue 80

Mâche
Better Than Lettuce

By Barbara Damrosch

Among salad greens, mâche is unique in its three-dimensionality. Pile its fluffy little heads on a plate and they retain a lofty height, the slightly concave leaves ready to cup a dressing. Harvested and served whole, the plants are simple bouquets no more than four inches across, mild in flavor and sweet (an alternate French name is doucette). Their texture is velvety, recalling the tenderest Boston lettuce, more chewy than crisp. Mâche beguiles. As California grower David Chelf puts it, “The beautiful, compact rosette is almost like a green flower. Twenty or 30 lying in front of you are like a soft pillow on which you could lay your head.”

Some farmers call mâche (pronounced “mahsh”) a weed. Long before anyone thought to cultivate it, mâche (Valerianella locusta) grew wild in European grain fields, hence its common English name of corn salad, “corn” denoting grain in general. It was often tolerated as a sort of accidental companion plant. Modest and ground-hugging, it interfered little with other crops and provided a nourishing free food. It popped up in seasons when a tonic was welcome: in early spring little else had sprouted, and in fall vegetables were on the wane.

Thomas Jefferson grew mâche at Monticello, as others did elsewhere in the New World. The Dutch called it vetticost, “rich fare,” which was anglicized as fetticus or fatty cows. These names, along with the plant itself, all but disappeared once big heads of lettuce became our preferred source of salad greens. When mâche returned to North American tables in the early 1980s, clothed in Euro-chic, it was the French name that stuck.

Like many gardeners at that time, I planted mâche alongside other gourmet greens, such as arugula and radicchio. But the mâche refused to grow. Later I learned from my husband, Eliot Coleman, whom I met in 1991, that mâche demands cool weather to germinate and thrive. Eliot first experimented with it in 1979 at the Coolidge Center, a research farm in Topsfield, Massachusetts, where he grew hardy greens in cold frames set inside unheated greenhouses for extra protection. Mâche, he found, could be harvested even while frozen. Now at our Four Season Farm in coastal Maine, it survives in a cold frame alone or in a greenhouse with spun-bonded polyester row covers spread over the beds. (In mild climates, it needs at most a light covering of leaves or straw, and it renews itself by going to seed.) We start sowing it in mid-September both in cold frames and the greenhouses and continue sowing it in the latter until November to have successive harvests all winter. If you sow in January, it will grow very slowly, but will make a decent showing by early spring. Densely cultivated, the plants spaced one inch apart in rows two inches apart, yields are respectable, although less than those of cut-and-come-again salad crops, which regrow.

Once picked, mâche is a fragile princess that must be handled gently and eaten very fresh. If you buy it, then like most produce, it should look as if it were still growing. It is best dressed simply with a light oil, such as walnut, and a bit of citrus juice or vinegar, applied just before serving lest the leaves disintegrate. It makes the perfect nest for a salad of beets baked in their skins until caramelized, then peeled and coated with vinaigrette while still warm. Beets and mâche are a frequent pairing in France, where beets are often sold already baked.

Chef Odessa Piper offers these thoughts, speaking with her characteristic intensity: “Mâche is so mild and delicate, a perfect foil for other fine delicate things, like fried trout set on a bed of it, or tossed with sautéed chanterelles, the leaves seasoned with not much more than the butter used to fry the mushrooms, a pinch of salt, and drops of lemon juice.” Since she sold her restaurant, L’Etoile in Madison, Wisconsin, Piper has traveled often with her husband, wine importer Terry Thiese. “Mâche is ubiquitous in every country that touches the Alps,” she says, “but the Germans seem to use it most profligately, indulging in whole salads of it. I know a fabulous cook in the Nahe, Cornelia Rumpf, who serves a quintessential Feldsalat at her simple restaurant.” The Nahe is a wine region in western Germany, and Feldsalat is German for mâche. “A hot bacon dressing coats the leaves and is truly divine. Her husband and son produce the delicious wines of Kruger-Rumpf, which — natch — go beautifully with the salad.”

Chef Dan Barber, of the Blue Hill restaurants in Manhattan and at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York, values mâche for its delicate flavor; he finds “part of its appeal is its crunch, and an integrity that is surprising when you bite into it.” He can always tell when mâche has been raised hydroponically, he claims, because it lacks that substance. (His is grown in the center’s half-acre greenhouse.) He makes a version of mâche and beet salad in which a thick, drained yogurt is first spread on the plate.

So why isn’t this lovely green in every garden and every kitchen? The reasons are partly cultural. In the Old World, a traditional crop such as this was a signpost of the season, inseparable from its weather. When I talk about mâche with Europeans who have emigrated to the US, it evokes passionate nostalgia. My neighbor Verena Stoll, here in Brooksville, Maine, grew up in Basel, Switzerland, not far from Alsace. When she heard Eliot and I were growing mâche, her ready smile turned to a delighted grin. “Nüsslisalat!” she exclaimed, using the Swiss name. “Can you get me some for Christmas dinner?” She recalls how in the 1950s Alsatian farm women would appear on Wednesdays in October trundling mâche-laden wooden carts en route to the market square. Expectant shoppers would flock to them along the way.

“Nüsslisalat satisfies a certain craving,” Verena explains. “It is a different kind of experience after your summer salads. Cold weather is approaching, and this is a salad that gets us through the winter.” She describes a version, incorporating the popular French “mimosa”, in which the mâche is dressed with vinaigrette just before serving. “Then sprinkle with hard-boiled finely diced egg, crumbled cooked bacon, and fresh croûtons. All these fall in between the leaves when you eat it.” She notes the Swedish treatment of mâche with a bit of disdain: “They dress it and let it stand in the dressing until it is mushy, then put it on toast.”

Cooks like Verena, even thrifty ones, are willing to pay high prices for this seasonal treat, but it is hard to infect American shoppers with such enthusiasm, accustomed as we are to a year-round supply of whatever we want. And mâche is expensive because it is costly to grow. You get only one cut, and the spring crop takes up space while it awaits the return of the ten-hour day (the first week of February, here in Maine), when green plants resume growing. Because mâche is tiny, weeds can overwhelm it. And it is very light, a drawback if you’re selling by the pound. Besides, being cut just below soil level, it requires scrupulous washing to dislodge soil particles. At least these sink to the bottom; worse are floaters, such as fragments of peat used to lighten the soil.

Nevertheless, mâche does fill a niche in present-day agriculture. In January 1996, Eliot and I made a trip to France and Italy to tour farms and gardens along the 44th parallel, the line of latitude that runs through our farm. Points along that line experience the same seasonal day lengths we do and, thanks to the Gulf Stream, a climate like the one inside our greenhouses. We made a point of visiting growers near Nantes, which, though a bit north of our planned trajectory, is Europe’s premier mâche-growing region. It lies in the fertile Nantes Basin, near the estuary of the Loire River.

Large fields were covered with low plastic growing tunnels calledchenilles, meaning “caterpillars.” It did, in fact, look as if a giant chenille bedspread had been stretched out across the land. Inside the little tunnels were rows of mâche, sometimes alternating with rows of carrots or onions, the mâche being harvested before the other crops could compete with it. Sand, mined from the estuary, was spread in a thin layer over the region’s naturally silty soil, which would otherwise form a crust and impede germination. The tool used to harvest mâche was only one step up from the small serrated knives with which we hand-cut ours. It was shaped like an elongated dustpan, with a blade in front and tines on the bottom that let some of the sand fall through. A forward thrust and short, side-to-side strokes cut the plants, which were then slid into a wooden tray, from which they were sold grit and all. Local cooks were well accustomed to washing them.

Not long after our visit, mâche production began to spark the interest of more farmers back home, especially after large growers in California’s Salinas Valley gobbled up a big share of the mixed-salad market. Prepackaged plastic bags of mesclun or “spring mix,” harvested with large machinery, drove the price down far below what small growers had to charge to cover their labor-intensive methods, and as the mixes became ubiquitous, single-ingredient salads started to seem more interesting. In 2002, one well-publicized Salinas Valley grower, Todd Koons, bet that mâche would be the next big thing. Resisting the trend toward hydroponic culture, he grew it out of doors year-round, with the aid of shade cloth in summer. But mâche is difficult to cut with mechanical harvesters, which must take aim at the minuscule point between the top of the root and the base of the head. The use of laser-leveled fields makes such a thing possible, although not every time.

Although Koons does not grant interviews, Catherine Baggott, the marketing director of his company, Epic Roots, spoke candidly to me about the challenges. At present 60 percent of Epic Roots’s mâche is picked by hand. Sales are steady and have grown over the years, but mâche is still not a household word. “We overestimated the educational process,” Baggott says.“ It’s hard to get Americans to try something new.” I wondered about how arugula came to be so popular despite its sharp bite. “Arugula is cheaper to buy,” she explained, “because it’s easier to grow.” She noted that in Germany and Italy, both important producers of mâche, the plants are grown on a large scale in greenhouses, where it is easier to maintain perfectly flat beds for a mechanical harvester. The growers in Nantes are switching to high, tunnel greenhouses, too, and they have found another benefit to that layer of Loire River sand: it provides a smooth surface for the passage of the machine’s blade.

For farmer David Chelf, “Mâche is like a woman. You’re attracted to its beauty, then you find out it needs an extra bit of care. But it’s worth it.” A former physicist, Chelf is an experimenter who loves a challenge (his company, Wicked Wilds, supplies us with plants of the rare and exquisite Mara des Bois strawberry). He has grown mâche in greenhouses organically and says the tricks are to provide plenty of light and high soil fertility and to prevent dehydration from heat and wind, while avoiding too-high humidity that can lead to disease.

Chelf’s philosophy is to “start at the table, find out what tastes best, then figure out how to make it happen in the field.” To his taste buds, mâche’s slight earthiness (“well accented by mushrooms and truffles”) is brought out by warm conditions. Too much heat and you lose its floral notes (“accented by fruits, especially citrus”). Cool conditions foster the plant’s nuttiness, and ideal conditions produce a blend of all three flavors. The search for this perfection led him to design an ingenious, balloonlike greenhouse that precisely regulates the atmosphere within.

It will take a change of heart for America to fully embrace seasonal cuisine and fragile, perishable crops like mâche. But such a thing might come to pass if enough food-growing were to shift back to the home, where the yields and speed of production are less crucial, and it is pleasant to spend a little extra time swishing leafy bouquets in the kitchen sink.●

From issue 80

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