Meet Your Greens comes out of my lifelong interest in the different flavours of salad greens.
I’ve always loved green salads. My definition of an abundant life includes a garden with an apple tree, a lemon tree – and salad greens and herbs. My absolute essential greens are flat-leaf parsley, curly endive and land cress. My garden usually has chicory, chickweed, dandelions, oak leaf lettuce, sorrel and mizuna.
I spent my childhood being jumped across time zones and climate zones: shuttling back and forth between New Zealand, Southern California, Britain and Papua New Guinea.
For those who are curious about the story behind this: My father, Ralph Bulmer was a Cambridge-trained social anthropologist and ethnobiologist, and my mother, Susan Bulmer, was an archaeologist who grew up in Pasadena, California. As a kid, I knew that this wasn’t particularly normal.
My two younger brothers and I accompanied our globe-trotting parents to exotic places. Being part of our family meant we had to be intrepid too. While also behaving ourselves.
Even if we might have preferred to stay at home watching The Flintstones and eating toast and honey.
I can’t speak for my brothers, David and Kenneth, but I felt like I was endlessly being sprung out of my comfort zone.
In every new place, even the food would taste different.
A handful of fresh, live salad greens would ground me.
One cold December day in 1970 I arrived jetlagged at my cousins’ house in the Cotswolds, fresh off the plane from tropical Papua New Guinea to a British winter. I sat at my aunt Rosemary’s kitchen table and ate a boiled egg sprinkled with fresh parsley from her garden. I’ll always remember the feeling of arrival that came over me.
Rosie had a garden full of interesting salad greens and herbs. She was a permaculturist before Bill Mollison and David Holmgren coined the term, always keen on self-sufficiency and sustainability.
Everywhere we went, I noticed the salads.
In Pasadena, California, my aunt Mary made individual side salads. Each diner, including us kids, had a small plate with carefully arranged greens, cherry tomatoes and a slice of avocado.
In southern California in the 1960s, my brothers and I were thrilled to find food coming out of vending machines. Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t any fresh food in the machines.
When I was seven, my family went to live in Papua New Guinea, where the flavours and aromas of local food were vivid and challenging.
Our memorable family meals were Pacific-fusion style food, which was the best way to use the fresh food my mother, Sue, bought from the local markets. She made stir-fries, salads and slow-cooked chicken with coconut cream and taro. Pacific fusion was Sue’s signature cooking style. She had learned to cook as a university student in Hawaii in the 1950s.
Sue wasn’t very domestically motivated, but she did her best. As an archaeologist, her head was usually about 50,000 years in the past.
My father was a good cook, but as a middle-class Englishman of his era, he expected his wife to produce everyday meals and dinner parties. Ralph could turn out a great curry on special occasions, but I don’t remember him making salads.
While our parents were preoccupied, my brothers and I spent a lot of time exploring our neighbourhood without adult surveillance.
When I played with my friends in the suburbs of Port Moresby, we would grab handfuls of leaves to nibble as we went past, from gardens, and from the nearby bush at the edge of the Waigani Swamp. The flavour bursts from certain flowers and tree buds are still in my memory.
I can’t remember how we knew what was edible and what wasn’t. It must have been a collective kids’ knowledge.
When we stayed in the remote New Guinea highlands, our fruit and vegetables came from gardens on the steep mountain slopes. Local people would arrive at our door carrying laden string bilum bags, full of colourful sweet potatoes, leafy greens and sticks of sugar cane to barter for trade goods. Salt and matches were worth more than Australian dollars.
There were flavours that I’ve never tasted anywhere else. I particularly remember Bep, a bitter-astringent green with a mucilaginous texture. I liked it at first, but I couldn’t eat it for days on end. I’ve since learned that many foods, including greens, aren’t good for humans to eat in large quantities every day. More is not necessarily better.
Back in Auckland in the 1970s, my mother always had a vegetable garden with salad greens, herbs and globe artichokes. Sue was a keen but sporadic gardener. She had a lot of other things on her mind, including renovating the house and finishing her PhD.
When I was 15 two young family friends, Gaby and John, came to live with us for a few months. These lively 20-somethings would take over the kitchen and concoct beautiful and memorable salads with leaves, flowers and herbs out of the garden.
John would jump over the fence and forage in the vacant section next door, returning brandishing handfuls of weeds: dandelions, chickweed and comfrey. These days we’re advised not to eat comfrey because of oxalates, but it’s a traditional ingredient in Italian food.
I have a thriving comfrey patch at the bottom of the garden, but I mainly use it for making garden fertilizer, and occasionally as a poultice for a sprained ankle.
My favourite salad green is chicory or curly endive. In spring when it’s newly grown, this is mild enough to be the base of a green salad on its own. In autumn when the plants have sent up purple flowers, the leaves tend to be tough and bitter. I slice the leaves finely and combine with milder salad greens, or add them to a coleslaw for flavour bursts.
And of course, with a great vinaigrette dressing: four parts oil, one part lemon juice or vinegar, a pinch of mustard powder, salt and pepper to taste, and maybe a pinch of sugar or a small dash of honey to balance the flavours.
For some great green salad recipes, plus why you should care about the different flavours of leafy greens, check out Meet Your Greens: Enliven your salads with herbal energetics. It’s available on Amazon Kindle. If you don’t have a Kindle you can read it on your computer or other devices with the free Kindle Cloud Reader app.