Ever since my student days in Paris I’ve preferred homemade dressings, especially vinaigrettes. There’s something about the utter simplicity of a French vinaigrette that appeals to me. Any Parisian bistrot that prides itself on la bonne cuisine will serve a memorable vinaigrette à la maison. But the salad I remember best was served to me in the Loire Valley.
Bruce and I made our first trip to the Loire Valley in the early 1980s before moving to California. There, in a valley studded with fairy tale castles, with villages still pocked with bullet holes and ruins from World War II, I fell in love with vinaigrette all over again.
We were visiting the region in early May, at a time when our home in New Hampshire was still mired in mud season, with dirty snowbanks and chilly weather; spring seemed impossibly far away from our New England home.
Spring generally arrives in France in April. By the time we arrived that May, young tender leaves of what we call “Boston lettuce” had emerged as the chief ingredient in green salads. The alternative, which we also enjoyed, was wilted pissenlit (dandelion greens) served with a mustardy vinaigrette and some rendered lardons (pork) as a counterpoint.
I still remember that amazingly simple green salad: lettuce leaves, a simple vinaigrette, and perhaps a sprinkling of a few walnuts. Nothing else. We may have enjoyed a glass of Sancerre, but I remember less about the wine from that occasion.
The freshly harvested lettuce had been cultivated in soil laden with limestone, which perhaps accounted for its distinctive mineral flavor. I don’t know if I’ve ever enjoyed a green salad as much as that one in the Loire Valley…
Trying to recapture that moment through the perfect green salad is something I look forward to every spring. Here in Seattle the hardy forsythia, cherry trees and crocuses are beginning to blossom in western-facing gardens with lots of sun exposure. This makes me hope that spring is only weeks away.
Today I shared a recipe for lemon shallot vinaigrette with my mother, as a wished-for harbinger of spring. Whenever I taste this vinaigrette, it brings me back to that Loire Valley trip: to memories of castle tours, seeing the actual wooden box where Joan of Arc hid herself so she could be brought secretly to a meeting with the French dauphin. I remember our bike rides along the river, exercising to work off the food we’d consumed the night before. We’d get lost and then find ourselves at a little café or a hole in the wall (literally) in the limestone cliffs where we would sample the local Touraine wine (quite spritzy).
Maybe this year we’ll taste a green salad with fresh lettuce that’s served at the perfect moment — young, tender, crisp and imbued with the minerality of its soil. The perfect dish for locavores…