Le Potager – In the Kitchen Garden
The potager is an essential aspect of French life, rooted deep in the time when a sustainable life was a necessity. It is a year-round vegetable garden just large enough to supply the household – and maybe a few friends and relatives -with fresh vegetables and herbs every day. In France, you’ll see these vegetable gardens in front yards, side yards, along stream banks and railroad tracks. Property deeds may indicate, as mine does, an area of land designated as the potager. Of course, today, whether in France or elsewhere, not everyone has the space or time to raise all their own vegetables, but many still try to raise something of their own, such as tomatoes, lettuce, leeks or herbs.
A POTAGER SEED SET with GARDEN MAPS
Michael Schwab, the brilliant graphic designer behind iconic logos for such clients as Amtrack, US National Parks, and NPR, http://www.michaelschwab.com as is also the design force behind La Vie Rustic. Most recently he created the design for my Potager Garden Set with 3 fold out maps, one for each for spring, summer, and fall. On one side is a planting scheme for a small garden space and on the other, complete planting and harvesting instructions. In the convenient Kraft box, in addition to the maps, you’ll find a muslin bag with a Baker’s Dozen of French vegetable seeds plus one flower – because gardens should be pretty – to plant throughout the seasons. Also included are 13 sturdy aluminum garden markers. (Photograph by Thomas Kuoh)
The seeds include roquette (arugula), Flamboyant radishes, round Paris Market carrots, Merveille de 4 Saisons lettuce, Très Fine Maraichère frisée and Carouby de Maussane peas to harvest in mid- to late spring. Longe de Violette eggplant, Marmande tomato, La Victoire haricot vert, Verte de Petit Paris cucumber, Ronde de Nice zucchini and Charentais melon to plant in late spring and early summer for summer harvest. In mid–to late summer, while you are harvesting your summer vegetables, you’ll also be planting vegetables that thrive in the cooling weather of fall, the same vegetables you planted in spring’s cool weather. You’ll plant frisée again, as well as lettuce, carrots, roquette, and radishes, this time for fall and early winter harvest.
Potager Seed Set with Garden Maps………………………………………………..$38.00
MESCLUN DE NICE SALAD SEED MIX
Mesclun, the name given to a variety of different salad mixes of young leaves and flowers has it origins in the city of Nice, in southern France. Here at La Vie Rustic we’ve created a bag of mixed lettuce, escarole, chicory, roquette and chervil seeds, plus nasturtium seeds for you plant in window boxes, garden pots, planting boxes or directly in the soil. There is enough seed for multiple plantings. The seeds come mixed in muslin bags, accompanied by an information card that tells the story of the origins of Mesclun de Nice, and full planting and harvesting instructions, all packed into a Kraft box with a pretty label.
The History of Mesclun de Nice
High above the city of Nice in Southern France, on a hill that was the site of the ancient Roman city of Cemenulum, now Cimiez, a Franciscan monastery was founded in the 16th century. As part of the monastic life, the monks there, like elsewhere, cultivated a potager garden that included various lettuces and greens as well as other vegetables and herbs. By the 19th century, so the story goes, the monks of Cimiez were too poor to purchase lettuce seeds of a single variety, so for their salads they grew a mixture of whatever lettuce seeds they could obtain, and supplemented the young leaves with the shoots of chervil, and wild greens like roquette, purslane, dandelion, and chicory that grew near their hillside gardens.
The resulting mélange or mix was a balance in flavor of mild from the lettuces, slightly bitter from the chicory, spicy from the roquette, chervil, and nasturtium leaves and flowers. There was also harmony in the variation of colors of the ingredients from light to dark green to magenta and red, and in the shapes of the leaves. Oakleaf lettuces and roquette were treasured for their elongated pointed leaves, a contrast to the curved leaves of the butterhead lettuces and the spoon shape of the romaine. Chervil was considered a key element, not only for its slightly anise-lemon flavor but also for its lacy elegance.
By the early 20th century the mix, under the term Mesclun, became identified as a specifically Niçoise salad mix but not until the 1960s did the mix appear in the markets and restaurants in other parts of France.
Today, to be a considered a true Mesclun de Nice, the mix must contain chervil and roquette and a minimum of five different lettuces, though many Niçoise insist on a minimum of eleven other different ingredients to include lettuce, escarole, and frisée.
However, there are a multitude of variations on Mesclun that use Asian greens, such as mizuna for spiciness, baby spinach, chard, or beet leaves for mildly bitter flavor and in the case of chard and beet leaves, color. Radicchio is frequently added as well.
Regardless of the mix combination, purists insist that the leaves must be no larger than 7 centimeters or about 2 ½ inches. If the leaves are larger, it is considered to be a young salad mix, no longer Mesclun
The leaves are cut from the growing plant, allowing for continuous regrowth.
About La Vie Rustic’s Mesclun de Nice
Ours is a balanced and harmonious mixture of seeds of seven different types of French heirloom lettuce, of two different French heirloom escaroles and one frisée, plus chervil and roquette. These are pre-mixed and packed into a muslin bag. A smaller muslin bag contains nasturtium seeds. There is enough mixed seed to plant a five foot row or five-foot square patch 3 times.
Seed Mixture Contents
Lettuce: Rouge d’Hiver Romaine, Merveille de 4 Saisons Butterhead, Reine de Mai Batavian, Green Oak Leaf, Parris Island Cos Romaine, Bronze Mignonette Butterhead, Oscarde Red and Green Oak Leaf; Frisée: Fine Maraichère; Escarole: Coeur Pleine and Pain de Sucre plus seeds of chervil, roquette.
LA VIE RUSTIC VEGETABLE SEED COLLECTIONS
When I lived in Provence, I bought my vegetable seeds from a small agricultural store in a neighboring village. The name on all the seed packets was Vilmorin. Later, I learned that it was the oldest seed company in the world, founded in Paris in 1743. All the seeds in La Vie Rustic’s Seed Collections are heirlooms, in production for over 75 years, and those marked with a “V” appear in The Vegetable Garden, a thick tome written by the famous French seedsmen and horticulturists, M.M. Vilmorin-Andrieux, over 125 years ago. The English language version appeared in 1885.
Growing vegetables from these seeds will not only provide you with personal satisfaction in the kitchen, but with the knowledge that you are participating in a chain with links going back more than 250 years to the Quai de la Mégisserie in Paris where Vilmorin has had a seed shop since the 18th century.
LA VIE RUSTIC FRENCH CHICORY SEED COLLECTION
Escarole, frisée and radicchio are all chicories. In French markets and home gardens, you’ll always see a goodly amount of lacy-leafed frisée, thick-leafed, tender hearted escarole, and multiple varieties of chicorée sauvage, or, to the Italians, radicchio. All belong to the chicory family and share a characteristic slight, but desirable, bitterness. They are versatile in the kitchen. Beyond making hearty salads, they can be braised, grilled, baked, or made into soups.
About Escarole and Frisée
The escaroles and frisées have pale yellow hearts which are tender and mild, while the outer dark green leaves are tougher. Escaroles have thick leaves, slightly ruffled on the edges, and thick midribs. Frisées have thin, fine, lacy leaves with thin, delicate midribs. The hearts of both may need to be blanched – that is it is protected from sunlight (and consequently from photosynthesis that turns the leaves green) by one of several different methods. It is not unusual to see an escarole or frisée in a French market that is 18 inches in diameter with a 12-inch blanched heart.
Radicchio, which in French is called chicorée sauvage, varies, according to variety, from a lush magenta to pale green speckled with rose. There are also dark green types.
Radicchio can be red, pink, pale or dark green at maturity, but most start out as green. As the heads swell, the inner leaves, protected by the outer wrap, begin to color.
The photo below is of freshly harvested escarole and radicchio, ready to turn into a salad.
Contents of the French Chicory Seed Collection
A large overpacket, letterpress printed on a 1950 Heidelberg press by a master printer, contains 6 individual packets with 1 gram each of the chicory varieties below, each enough for planting a 50 foot row or multiple seedings of shorter rows, plus complete planting and blanching instructions.
- Scarole Cornet de Bordeaux – This is an upright escarole with tightly-wrapped, somewhat flaring leaves that protect its pale yellow heart. The cornet type was described in the Vilmorin book. It is self-blanching.
- Scarole Pain de Sucre – This is an upright heirloom escarole growing up to 18 inches or more, with tightly wrapped leaves. It is self-blanching.
- Scarole Blonde a Coeur Plein – This is a flat, spreading escarole with sturdy, tightly bunched center leaves. It needs to be blanched to maximize tender leaves.
- Frisée Très Fine Maraichère – The very fine feathered leaves of this heirloom curl into a robust heart. It needs to be blanched to maximize tender leaves.
- Frisée Ruffec – V – this sturdy frisée received high praise from MM. Vilmorian-Andrieux over 125 years ago. “The midrib of the leaf is very white and thick, very tender and tasty.” It needs to be blanched to maximize tender leaves.
- Chicorée Sauvage de Verone –This is a classic radicchio originating in the region of Verona in northern Italy. It produces a sturdy round head, and the dark outer leaves will keep the leaves of the inner heart tender. The inner leaves are magenta with wide, white midribs. There will be some plant variations.
When to plant: In cool climates, plant in spring when the ground thaws for a summer harvest. In warm climates, plant in summer for a fall and winter harvest.
Germination: 7 to 10 days
Days to maturity: approximately 90 days
In the Kitchen: The robust leaves of escarole and frisée make excellent salads that handle big flavors, like crispy bacon or jambon cru, sausages, fried eggs, cheese, or garlic croutons (your choice of combination) and dressings rich with balsamic or aged cider vinegars. A French classic is a frisée salad topped with warm goat cheese. Escarole and radicchio are also excellent grilled.
LA VIE RUSTIC FRENCH LETTUCE SEED COLLECTION
In French markets and home gardens, you’ll see an ever-changing array of lettuces in all colors, leaf types, shapes, and sizes. Red, pale green, dark green, variegated, tight heads, loose heads, tall and short – the choice is vast and varied. The ones we have selected here represent a combination of shapes, colors and flavors that will ensure you a wide range of lettuces for your salads. All of them are heirlooms with a long history of being cultivated in French potager and market gardens. The seed varieties marked with a “V” indicates they were described by the famous French seedsmen and horticulturalists, MM. Vilmorin-Andrieux, over 125 years ago in their book, The Vegetable Garden, first published in English in 1885.
Types of Lettuce
Batavian or Crisphead
Batavian lettuces are somewhat old-fashioned. They form a semi-tight head, with looser, spreading outer leaves. They are the precursor to the crisphead or iceberg types so commonly seen today with exceedingly tight heads and lots of wrapper leaves, which are generally discarded before being sent to market.
Butterhead lettuce forms small to medium heads comprised of loosely folding leaves with a fine texture. The leaves are very smooth and delicate, making these a favorite in France for the classic, thick mustard vinaigrette that coats the leaves.
Romaine or Cos
Romaine lettuce forms an upright head, with elongated leaves that are slightly spoon-shaped. The leaves may be slightly ruffled at the end and the mid-rib may or may not be pronounced. Romaines are typically quite sturdy and crunchy.
Loose-leaf lettuces grow in a loose, open shape with no discernible head forming. None of this type is included in our French Lettuce Seed Collection.
Contents of the French Lettuce Seed Collection
A large overpacket, letterpress printed on a 1950 Heidelberg press by a master printer, contains 6 individual packets with 1 gram each of the lettuce varieties below, each enough for planting a 50 foot row or multiple seedings of shorter rows, plus complete planting and blanching instructions.
- Reine des Glaces, also known as Frisée de Beauregard – V -This Batavian type, like some of the other lettuces in this collection, has been cultivated for more than 125 years, a testimonial to how good it is. It might be my favorite lettuce. It has deeply cut, almost lacy leaves with spiky edges, and its tightly curled head has an iceberg look. It’s easy to imagine that once upon a time iceberg lettuce did look and taste like Reine des Glaces, full of favor with a crunchy texture. Although best grown in the cool days of spring and fall, it can tolerate some heat.
- .Rouge Grenobloise- This Batavian type has a large head, heavily brushed with varying shades of magenta, and pale-green inner leaves that are somewhat crisp. The leaves are curly and ruffled. It does equally well in warm and cold weather, making it a good choice for many growing areas.
- Merveille de Quatre Saisons – V – This is a classic larger butterhead type, with soft delicate leaves that are blushed dark magenta along the tops, pale green at the base. It has been in production for more than 125 years and is still a favorite in farmers’ markets and restaurants, not yet eclipsed by new breeding. It’s called ‘4 Seasons’ because in all but the hottest and coldest climates, it can be grown year-round, though it is best, I think, in spring and fall.
- Reine de Mai – This butterhead lettuce forms a lovely little pale creamy-green head, sometimes tinged with just a bit of rose. The leaves, like other butterheads, are fine and delicate, and their unusual color sets them apart. It is not very heat tolerant.
- Rougette de Montpellier, also known as Rougette de Midi- This butterhead type forms a small, almost round head with typically dark maroon leaves, green at the base. The leaves are tender and delicate. It is more tolerant to heat than some other butterheads.
- Romaine Rouge d’Hiver- V – This romaine, after being in production for more than 125 years, remains a standard for both home and market growers. The leaves are smoother and more delicate than those of most romaines and vary in shade from maroon to bronzish red, with pale green bases. This lettuce is excellent to harvest as baby lettuce when the leaves are 4 or 5 inches long, and of course, it can also be harvested at full size.
When to plant: Climate is the major influence on lettuce. When the days grow hot, the lettuce becomes bitter. Plant in spring and fall in warm climates, spring, summer, and fall in cooler climates.
Germination: 5 to 7 days
Days to maturity: Approximately 28 days for baby leaf, 50-58 days for full heads.
In the Kitchen: Try Reine des Glaces for your next wedge salad with blue cheese dressing, adding some crumbled bacon. Combine Reine de Mai with fresh tarragon, basil, and chives and dress with Champagne vinaigrette. Mix all the baby lettuce leaves together and some fresh herbs to make your own mesclun mix. Most of all, enjoy a fresh garden salad every day.