Skip to main content
Menu

Local sourcing

Beating the cold with bitter leaves

Colder temperatures might get you reaching for the soups, stews and roast dinners, but sometimes you need a fresh taste alongside all that veg. Step forward winter salad, and more specifically, the bitter leaves such as dandelion, mustard, rocket and cress, whose peppery flavours warm you up in a very different way.

Farm manager Ed Scott in the polytunnel
Farm manager Ed Scott

Walking through the polytunnels, farm manager Ed Scott says even he was initially sceptical about growing salad in winter. “Everyone gets a lot of winter veg at this time of year, and actually a bag of salad once a month is really nice,” he says, crouching by the neat rows of dandelion leaves inside one of the big arched tunnels. The dandelion variety in question, Italiko, is different to the one found in most gardens, although they are also edible, as it grows vertically making it easier to pick and leaves are cleaner as this variety grows away from the soil.

The winter salad leaves are known as "cut and come again", explains Scott, as they will be harvested around every four weeks, depending on the leaf, from November until March or April. A side-effect of this technique is that the more peppery leaves, such as cress or mustard, tend to get spicier on every pick – believed to be an evolutionary trait as the plant tries harder to deter 'predators'.

“You can also cook with these types of leaves, every now and then we might leave the dandelions to grow a bit longer and put out a recipe to cook with them, or you can do things like a risotto with rocket,” Scott continues, walking through the rows of tunnels. In summer, they are bursting with the heady smell of tomatoes, chillies and basil, and tropical-looking vines of cucumbers, before making way for the winter salad crop.

Under a cosy-looking layer of fleece are the green shoots of baby ruby chard, covered in the early stages to encourage it to grow. Then there’s the bright green frilly mustard leaves with their distinctive taste, and land cress, a cousin of water cress but grown in soil so it is safe from any risk of water-borne bacteria that water cress growers have to be so careful about.

Butterhead lettuce
Salanova is a red variety of Butterhead lettuce

And it’s not just bitter leaves that are selected for winter cropping – Butterhead lettuces are also a popular choice, explains Scott, holding up a dark red variety called Salanova, with its bi-coloured leaves bright green at the base and dark red at the head.

“They have a longer shelf-life and thick velvety leaves that are more cold resistant than something like a Cos lettuce, which is more watery so it doesn’t do too well in the frost because all the cells freeze and then burst,” he says.

Cut by hand, the bitter leaves and winter lettuces are harvested by teams of pickers through the day before being whisked off to the packhouse at Riverford HQ, less than a mile away. As Scott says: “Every bag of salad we can produce here is one less lettuce that we have to import from Spain.”

    Comments

    Wicked Leeks is out now

    Cover star, Jyoti Fernandes, tells of the small producers standing up for their rights, while elsewhere we explore climate-friendly eating and how to eat seasonal in spring.

    Read now

    Choose food that hasn't flown.

    Riverford organic veg boxes are delivered directly to your door. Choose your box now.

    Go to Riverford

    The net zero counter narrative

    Read our coverage of the new trend for net zero and see beyond the headlines.

    Read more

    Grow Your Own

    Our monthly gardening advice column offers timely advice for your organic patch, whether you're an expert grower or just starting out.

    Explore
    LETTERBOXRiverford-organic-veg-boxes.png

    Boom in organic unmatched by farming

    Sales of organic boomed during 2020 as the pandemic boosted interest in food quality but growth will be met by imports as UK farmers hold back.

    Read more
    Spread the word

    The twin crises of climate change and biodiversity losses will be the defining stories of our future, but it is not too late to change direction. 

    Here at Wicked Leeks, our mission is to help inform and inspire positive change. Our journalism is free to all because of this, but we want to reach as many people as possible who share our desire for a better world. We know our readers are some of the biggest advocates of sustainable living, and you can help us grow this movement by sharing this article widely, with your friends and on social media. Now is the time to act.