Favorite Hardy Lettuces
Post By William Woys Weaver
I have been enjoying the benefits of hardy lettuce all winter and still find myself astounded by the huge haul of greens I harvested for dinner on New Years Day 2012. Global warming may have a silver lining for those of us want to eat from our gardens all year around, but this should also remind us that we may soon need to revise what we mean by “winter” greens. One of the hardy winter lettuce varieties that has always done well for me, even under the snow, is Cracoviensis, which you can find in the Baker Creek catalog here.
This is actually a medieval lettuce that turns quite bronzy when grown in cold weather. The cold stunts its growth, so it stays close to the ground until spring rather than shooting up the way it does in warm weather. It was originally grown as a stem lettuce like Celtuce since its succulent stems could be cooked like asparagus, although without the asparagus flavor.
Mennonite horticulturist Jacob B. Garber (1800-1886), who lived in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, reported in 1855 that he had been growing this lettuce for a number of years and that his wife cooked it just like asparagus. Garber had gotten his seeds from a man with missionary connections in China and was thus growing it under the vague Chinese name hoo sung. This only goes to show that Cracoviensis probably originated in China, but moved west during the Middle Ages. By the 1350s it was growing in the royal gardens of king Casimir the Great of Poland, hence its name Cracoviensis in reference to Krakow where the royal castle was located. The castle is still there even though the royal gardens have long since disappeared. Just the same, we are left with a puzzle: how did the Poles cook the lettuce in the 1300s? Most likely it went into soup or it was poached in vinegar and served like an appetizer. Lettuce was considered “cold” in the medieval dietary system of humors, so it was always served with something “hot” like ginger, or with strong spices like cloves, cinnamon, or even garlic. Yes, one can easily imagine medieval Polish cooks preparing the stems with garlic sauce, in fact, I tried it and it is not too bad!
William Woys Weaver is a culinary historian living in Devon, Pennsylvania, were he maintains the Roughwood Seed Collection consisting of some 4000 varieties of food plants.
Lewiston New York, NY
4/25/2013 9:34:03 AM
Interested in hardy lettuce and exotic greens. Great article.