The French have rules for a lot of different foods—they don’t eat ice cream when the temperature dips below 77° F; they cut cheese to preserve the integrity of the original form—and yet I have found no dish more regimented than green salad. Whether it’s an opinion on when to serve it, how to prepare it, or how to eat it, salad is surely the most rigid part of a French meal.
First, let’s talk about the confusing nomenclature. As in English, “salade” refers to lettuce (or other vegetables like potatoes, carrots, or cucumbers) that has been tossed with a tangy dressing. “Salade composée” is a heartier main course dish—a pile of greens topped with cheese, cured meats, or other morsels. And—just to confuse things—the word “salade” is also the French term for “lettuce.” Distinguishing between these three definitions requires observation, patience, and a strong sense of the conversation’s context. But once you’ve figured out the correct meaning, the opinions quickly follow.
When is the best moment of the meal to eat green salad? In France, there is no “best” time—there is only one time: after the main course and before the cheese. The reasons for this are varied, with some believing salad cleanses the palate, while others claim it aids digestion. “Occasionally, the two are combined, with a cheese platter and a salad bowl on the table,” says Kristin Espinasse, an American blogger who has lived in the south of France for 25 years. Many French people, however, find that vinaigrette overpowers the subtle flavors of cheese, and prefer to enjoy the two separately.
Preparing salad, as well, is a topic that elicits much advice. According to cookbook author, Susan Loomis, who has lived in Normandy, France for over twenty years, market-fresh French lettuce, especially sandy varieties like mâche, is laden with grit, and needs to be washed seven times, swirled within tubs of water until not a particle of dirt remains. Drying lettuce, too, is a crucial part of the process. Kristin Espinasse still vividly remembers a meal she ate years ago at the home of her French husband’s college friend, “a guy who lived on Coca-Cola and frozen foods,” she says. “But when it came to making a salad—something he supplemented his poor diet with?—he corrected me for not drying the lettuce sufficiently. To this day, I am terrified to serve so much as a humid leaf to the French!” Once dried, the leaves must be torn by hand into bite-sized pieces—never chopped with a knife, which causes the lettuce to brown.
Salade verte, or green salad, is always just that—green leaves, vinaigrette, nothing else. “I once asked a French woman why the French, known for their gastronomy, eat such mundane salads—always lettuce leaves, not so much as a tomato tossed in!” says Kristin Espinasse. “She replied coolly: ‘That's because our lettuce is good. It doesn't need anything else.’” Like most simple recipes, the green salad relies on exceptional ingredients—and the French take great pride in crafting perfect vinaigrette, which they also call sauce. “It’s the first thing my father taught me how to make in the kitchen!” says my friend, Jérôme. But, he warns, “don’t dress your salad until the very last minute before serving because “the vinegar ‘cooks’ the lettuce, and the leaves are no longer crunchy.” In fact, the French verb for “dressing a salad” is fatiguer—which also means “to tire.”
Once the salad is on your plate, there are—quelle surprise!—rules about eating it. The most important is to never cut the lettuce with your table knife. If you do encounter an oversized leaf, maneuver your fork and knife to fold it into a bite-sized packet, which you may then pop into your mouth. It’s a complicated bit of politesse with several possibilities of origin—Jérôme’s grandfather once told him it dated from the days of yore, when “the bourgeois silver cutlery oxidized from the salad’s vinegar,” while my friend Thomas says his father claims “you don’t cut the lettuce on the plate, as it would imply that the one who prepared the salad did it incorrectly.” My friend Anna’s Swiss-French in-laws take the rule one step further, completely banishing knives from the salad course. Instead, they “use a small piece of bread to push the salad onto the fork,” she says. “Then you stab the bread with a fork and move it around the plate to absorb some of the vinaigrette, and use the fork to eat it.”
Of course, one does wonder why the French have so many rules governing something so seemingly trivial. Author Susan Loomis—who devotes an entire chapter to salad in her newest memoir, In a French Kitchen—has a theory. “The beauty of Americans is we adhere to no rules, nowhere more evident than in our food,” she says. “For a French person, a salad is thought out. It's like all things American and French. The French have ‘rules’ and traditions; we Americans don't, so we also don't have discipline with flavors.”
Now if someone could just explain the French rule about keeping bread on the table, instead of on a plate…
Illustrations by Libby VanderPloeg, an artist and illustrator based in Brooklyn; she's also a sourdough baker and mise en place advocate.
For more on French food (sans white tablecloth), head here.
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