Lamb's Lettuce: The Little Leaf That Could

Lamb's Lettuce first emerged during the Renaissance period, when the great chateaux like Blois, Chenonceau and Chambord were built along the banks of the river Loire. In those days, this lettuce grew wild in the wheat and barley fields where it was picked by peasants. Leonardo da Vinci captured Lamb's Lettuce in his great work 'Leda'. In the sixteenth century, the poet Ronsard sang the praises of 'the little lettuce of the fields and meadows.'

It wasn't until 1650 that this little lettuce was actually grown in vegetable gardens in France, with the notable exception of Versailles; evidently, the household of Louis X1V preferred other types of salad. From the nineteenth century onwards, cultivation of Lamb's Lettuce really started to become established. The market gardeners from the Nantes region began to cultivate the lettuce and provided the towns and cities in the region with fresh salads all year round, even in winter.

Finally, the lettuce received a gourmet stamp of approval, when a famous Parisian restaurateur created the Victor Emmanuel salad. Made with Lamb's Lettuce, celery root and beetroot, this salad replicated the three colours of the Italian flag.

Lamb's Lettuce from Nantes is produced by more than 360 growers from around the Nantes region of France. The growers are organized into eight co-operative groups and each group has a representative sitting on a committee, which is dedicated to ensuring the best quality produce comes to market. This committee also supervises technical and quality procedures and research activity.

The Loire Valley growers are the leading producers of Lamb's Lettuce in Europe, with the Nantes region representing 85% of the national production. More than 18,500 tonnes of Lamb's Lettuce is grown in the Nantes region of France each year; 16,500 tonnes from September to April, compared to 2000 tonnes in summer. In total, that represents 13 billion bouquets a year.

The Nantes region has a temperate climate, warmed by the Gulf Stream, making it ideal for cultivation of Lamb's Lettuce. The area has fertile soils along the alluvial plains of the river Loire, and a high rainfall.

Growing Lamb's Lettuce is demanding. The ground must be carefully prepared and sloped to facilitate drainage and prevent mud forming. The crop is sown in open fields from mid August to mid December. Then it is covered with light layer of sand, which has been specially selected from the river Loire to protect it from damage and help produce the best-shaped leaves. This sand is unique in the world: the grains are neither too big nor too fine and are perfectly polished. They let air circulate around the young plants, help drainage, and allow the delicate Lamb's Lettuce bouquets to open up completely, without ever damaging the tender leaves.

The crop is harvested by modern machinery, which has been specifically designed to slide gently under the sand layer and cut the lettuce without damaging its leaves. Once picked, the lettuce is put in a cool, humid room in a special water bath, into which air is injected to wash away the grains of sand. The lettuce is then packed and transported, ready for sale.

The rules for selecting the best Lamb's Lettuce are simple and infallible. It should have well formed bouquets that do not curl. The leaves should be soft, with a lovely, flat green colour and a velvet like appearance. After purchase, Lamb's Lettuce can be stored unopened in a refrigerator for up to a week, or up to three days once opened.

To serve Lamb's Lettuce from Nantes, simply place it in a colander, rinse and drain. Never leave the lettuce immersed in water. (If the salad needs reviving, plunge it quickly in fresh water with a few drops of vinegar.) To dry the lettuce, place leaves carefully in a salad spinner. Spin to remove water. To season and dress, place seasoning and salad dressing in a bowl and then add the leaves, not the other way round. Season just before serving.

Lamb's Lettuce from Nantes is the ideal, healthy food. It has more vitamins than many cooked vegetables, is high in folic acid and packed with fibre. It is also known for its diuretic qualities, and is believed to be helpful in combating the effects of stress and promoting sleep.

What's more, it is also low in calories - only 19 per 100g (compared to 31 in raw carrots, 42 in orange and 747 in butter), making it filling and satisfying when on a calorie controlled diet.

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