First, they came for our courgettes. Now it's Iceberg, Cos, Romaine and Little Gem.
Welcome to the great lettuce shortage of 2017.
As Metro put it, If you're planning on nipping to the supermarket later don't be shocked if you're met with 28 Days Later-style empty and abandoned shelves."
Although I am unconvinced this situation is quite comparable to a post-apocalyptic scenario - it is caused by unseasonably cold weather in Spain, where the vast bulk of our salads are grown - it is a suitable moment to consider our food security, and how well prepared we are for future "curveballs" that affect food prices and availability.
This is something I've been banging on about for quite a while. Back in 2013 I gave a talk at an event called TEDxBedford called The Politics of Salad - you can watch it here. I can't claim to be self-sufficient in many foodstuffs come the zombie apocalypse, but I know I'll be OK for salad. That may sound flippant, and it is, but there's a serious side too. In the past five years since I gave up bagged supermarket salad leaves, I've been able to identify, sow, grow and forage several dozen edible leaves; enough to keep me in salads on any given day of the year.
I've written about growing and foraging salads for winter in the winter edition of Rakes Progress magazine, which is out this week, so I won't steal my own thunder on that topic. But in this post I want to look at a trio of wonderful lettuces you can grow from seed that you won't find on supermarket shelves, whatever the weather. I'd also recommend you go back and read my post about another wonderful but rare and underrated salad leaf, February orchid, here.
This was probably my first lettuce crush. I wrote about this romaine-type heritage variety in my book The Allotment Keeper's Handbook way back in 2007. It's very tough and hardy, and very beautiful too, with red speckles as the name suggests ('Forellenschluss' refers to the speckles on a trout's back). I got my seeds from the Heritage Seed Library originally, but it is currently available from Chiltern Seeds and Plant World Seeds. If you like speckled lettuce, you should also try 'Flashy Butter Oak' from Real Seeds.
'Ear of the Devil'
Yes, I am a sucker for a weirdly-named lettuce. I came across 'Ear of the Devil' on the seed list of Brown Envelope Seeds in Ireland, and loved the vivid wine-red colour of the pointy leaves. It grows very well in containers for me, and didn't seem overly attractive to slugs, either. Unfortunately I can't find a current UK source for seed of this lettuce - it is out of stock at Brown Envelope as I type - but it is available from Adaptive Seeds in the US.
I first discovered Franchi Seeds when I bought a packet of their 'Misticanza Mix' cut-and-come-again lettuces from an Italian deli in Clerkenwell, near the old Guardian offices. The wonderful thing about this seed supplier is each packet is huge, providing enough lettuce for a whole allotment's worth of salad. This is still my go-to lettuce mix: it's a really nice range of colours and shapes, and very reliable. Franchi now sell a spring and summer-sown and an autumn-sown mix, which is even more useful. Another mixed lettuce pack worth looking at is Real Seeds' 'Morton's Secret Mix', which always throws up something interesting.
There are so many wonderful lettuces out there ... this year I want to give Real Seeds' 'Red Iceberg' a go, for instance. Have you got any lettuce varieties you'd recommend?