Surprisingly, lettuce has been around for a very long time but it hasn’t always been considered just a salad ingredient
There probably isn’t any other food more associated with dieting or healthy eating than lettuce.
It is thought that the lettuce plant first came from India, although it has been around in the Mediterranean region since ancient times. The Egyptians and the Greeks believed that it acted as a tonic for the stomach, increased production of breast milk and helped to induce sleep.
Wild lettuce was used to treat cataracts but none of lettuce’s attributes has had more popularity or lasted longer over time than the alleged property of diminishing sexual appetite. The libido inhibiting effects of lettuce are even reflected in mythology. In classical Greece, the goddess of love, Aphrodite, buried her lover, Adonis, under a layer of lettuce leaves, symbolising a promise to never again succumb to sexual passion. The amusing fact is that in 2006 it was discovered that precisely the opposite was true. Lettuce contains certain alkaloids that are aphrodisiacs when consumed in moderate amounts.
Lettuce is nearly always associated with being eaten raw and yet in ancient times lettuce was eaten pickled, probably due to its bitter taste. In ancient Rome the agriculturist Columella, who was born in Cadiz, included a recipe for pickling lettuce in his book ‘Res rustica’. The entire plant was first salted and then conserved in vinegar with other vegetables such as peas and fennel. Apicius, in his famous recipe book, includes several recipes using pickled lettuce. In the time of ‘Al Andalus’, Abu El Jair professed to preferring lettuce eaten raw. He also gave a recipe for a cold summer soup which still exists today although with variations: ‘lettuce gazpacho’. It was a soup made from raw lettuce with vinegar, olive oil, water and salt and was considered extremely refreshing for workers in the fields during the hot summer months.
There is still evidence of lettuce being cooked in the 16th century. One recipe is for lettuce preserved in a sweet sauce, eaten more for its medicinal properties than for its taste. Lettuce leaves were regularly added to stews, stocks and casseroles.
There are numerous varieties of lettuce. The ‘lechuga malagueña’ is compact and sweet. ‘Romana’ (also known as ‘oreja de burro’ or ‘donkey’s ear’ in English) lettuce has smoother leaves, tough stems and is not so sweet. The ‘Lollo’, red or green, has fine, curly leaves. Nowadays there are many imported varieties of lettuce available.
Chicory, traditionally cultivated in Malaga, is a type of winter lettuce. It has ruffled leaves and a bitter flavour. It is usually served raw with hot oil and sautéed garlic poured on top. Here and elsewhere in the Mediterranean blanched chicory is used in a similar way to spinach.
The endive is from the same family as chicory but is totally different in appearance. Grown in cooler climates the plant is earthed up and the leaves, which are curled around each other tightly, are not exposed to sunlight and therefore do not make chlorophyll. There are many other leaves that are used in salads that are not related to lettuce, such as rocket, dandelion and even nettles!