Monday 9 July 2012

La Reine des Glaces

French people eat a lot of fresh raw leafy greens. And they are very precise about nomenclature. Laitue can be translated as 'lettuce' but to a French person, laitue is a quite specific type of lettuce, and the generic term for what in English would be lettuce or salad greens is salade in French. Within the salade section of a market stall you could get labels for laitue, batavia, scarole, mesclun, mache, feuilles de chene, endive, frisée, romaine, roquette and no doubt a few more that I've forgotten or don't know about.

One that I hadn't noticed before is reine des glaces. I was alerted to its presence on Madame Morin's stall on Saturday by the woman behind me in the queue. 'Oh!' she exclaimed, 'You have reine des glaces! You hardly ever see it these days! It's so good to see someone growing the old varieties! My husband loved it and used to grow it! It has such a distinctive taste!'

Reine des glaces and tomato baguettes.
It is a cut leafed lettuce and I thought it looked like an escarole type, which are a little bitter. 'No, no', I was assured. 'It's a batavia.' This is the variety I usually buy, as it is crisp, mild and keeps well (we don't eat nearly as much lettuce as your average French person). Monsieur Morin seemed very pleased with all the attention his reines des glaces were getting and handed me one saying 'Here, try one. Take it, it's a little gift for you'.

So I brought it home and we had some in a simple tomato sandwich for lunch. Very nice - very crunchy and a flavour as if it has been seasoned with salt and pepper.

It turns out, now that I've googled the subject, that batavias are iceberg lettuces. This will give anglophone readers a vision of a melon sized ball of tightly packed pale green leaves with no taste but plenty of crunch. French batavias are picked before they get to that stage and are a small loose head of bright green leaves. It further turns out that reine des glaces is an extremely popular 200 year old variety that everyone raves about. It is reliable no matter what the weather, and particularly so in the cold (hence the name, which means 'ice queen') making a small round head and best if not watered. Those who are particularly enamoured even talk about its unique 'hazelnutty' flavour. Its only drawback seems to be that it sets very few seeds and so can be difficult to source if you want to grow some.



Ken Broadhurst said...

Interesting, Susan. I don't think I've ever seen Reine des Glaces salad greens. We eat batavia all the time, and we eat green salad nearly every day.

In the U.S. there's a variety of Lactuca sativa that we call "green leaf lettuce" and it resembles French batavia more than iceberg does. But it looks like all these lettuces are all the same species, including romaine. Is that true? Then there are the endives or chicories...

Pollygarter said...

Susan, it is commonly sold in the UK with those very usable outer leaves [with the most flavour too] peeled of and probably dumped.... as "Iceberg" iceberg lettuce or "New York"... the best of the old varieties of which, and with a superb taste [but not consistent enough to grow commercially] is Webb's Wonderful... but much better for those of us who want to pick a lettuce a week.
But don't confuse them with the longer leaved batavias which are more like romaine/little gem in texture and flavour.
There is also a new version that is a deliberate cross between this and Frizee [not to be confused with frisée - but very similar in looks] that has some Friz for decoration, but more in the way of flesh... Pauline and I haven't tried it, but it looks attractive.
Mesclun you could grow in a bag of terreau at home as it is a "cut and come again" mix. Pauline has grown a spicy leaves mix this year... mainly rocket, and fabulouse as the leaf in a smoked chicken sandwich/baguette.
In case you haven't noticed, I like lettuce and our "Black" little gems are almost ready to pick.
Another little tip if you grow your own... cut the lettuce off about an inch above ground [leaving those lower leaves intact] and there will be another flush of usable salade in a few weeks.

Susan said...

Ken: I think'd better ask Tim though :-)

Tim said...

Susan is right... they are, to my knowledge, all the same species... but there may have been unintentional crosses with wild 'salad' varieties. The 'butterheart' lettuce that used to be sold until "New York" arrived on the greengrocers shelves is, thank god, just a vague memory of limp salads my mother used to make. And a sandwich using that used to last a long time.... a very long time!!
But who really knows... was the American strain of crisp, juicy iceberg lettuce the result of a deliberate game of Lettuce Levis on the part of a food scientist or the accidental discovery of a 'keeper' of seed. Some varieties go back to the 1850s... and of course now promoted as such in "olde-style" packaging.
If you keep the seed from an F1 variety you could get rubbish, or a parent strain that had better flavour but didn't crop "all at the same time" for modern harvesting machines or techniques.
And where did the red in Red Oak Leaf lettuce and our black "Little Gem" type, Pandero... plant breeders have fun but probably need to be as thorough with their record keeping as you are, Susan, with your flies.

Tim said...

The first paragraph of this Wiki entry [and the rest of the article as well] makes interesting reading.

Pollygarter said...

Simpsons Seeds list Reine des Glaces in their catalogue, along with another 30 varieties, many of which are French. They group their varieties into "roundhead" (the soft green one that Tim doesn't like), "crisp/Batavia or Iceberg type", "cos type" (long scoop-shaped elaves) and "loose leaf type" (cut and come again). Pauline

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