Hold the lettuce — we’ve reached Peak Salad

Now you can have one for breakfast and they’re outselling fish and chips in pubs. Is there no escape?

If your instincts are still to order sausage, egg and chips at lunchtime and round it off with a nice cream bun, be warned: you are, quite literally, a dying breed. Separate pieces of research last week showed that a main-course salad is the fourth most popular dish on British menus, despite not featuring in the Top 20 the previous year, and that four out of ten lorry drivers — lorry drivers, I tell you — are worried about their waistlines, complaining that there aren’t enough healthy options on the road.

They should drop into McDonald’s, which recently announced it is to drop iceberg lettuce from its salads in favour of more nutritious baby romaine, baby kale, and a baby Tuscan blend. Which is doubly remarkable news if, like me, you had no idea McDonald’s even did salads.

What can be going on? A bunch of Kensington social x-rays pushing overpriced leaves around their plate at Daylesford cafe, I can understand. Likewise, young bloggers with food issues waxing lyrical about the joys of “hand-massaged” kale or “activated” nuts and seeds. But the backbone of working Britain demanding the right to eat its greens? Surely it is proof that we have reached peak salad.

I certainly know when salad nadir was — any decade you care to pick before this one. The British simply didn’t do salads very well. For me it came in 1996 on holiday in the Peak District when the local pub came highly recommended because “the food’s not great, but you can fill your gut for a fiver”.

I tried to play safe with the salad: a huge bowl layered with two inches of iceberg lettuce, an inch of sliced cucumber, an inch of unripe tomatoes and half an inch of cress. Completely undressed, completely unseasoned. I asked for vinaigrette but was met with a shaking of the head and a bottle of Sarson’s vinegar. No wonder most people dismissed salad as rabbit food.

Fast-forward 20 years and we can even afford to turn our noses up at those two former beacons of respectability, the caesar and niçoise. Nowadays you can’t move for bowls of amaranth and grilled fennel with broad beans and alfalfa sprouts; roasted cauliflower with sultanas, pomegranates and saffron crème fraiche; grilled peaches with couscous, mint and serrano ham. Salads have got sexy, and a few chopped up vegetables doused in vinegar won’t cut it any more.

These aren’t just conscience-salving lunches sandwiched between morning fry-ups and evening pizzas either. Bill Granger, the Australian brunch king who is a barometer of future trends, is extolling the joys of salads at the start of the day. “When I opened my first restaurant here five years ago, it was hard to find a salad at any time of the day,” he tells me. “If I tried to add a bit of rocket to a plate of scrambled eggs you could guarantee it would come back untouched.”

Now he has half a dozen breakfast salads at his three Granger & Co restaurants in London, including boiled eggs with hummus, home-made pickles, seaweed and miso dressing and a buckwheat bowl featuring rose harissa and sunflower sprouts. His Fresh Aussie option, with tea-smoked salmon, avocado, poached egg, tomato and kale, is his bestselling dish in the morning.

People want a wholesome balance, to feel good but be fullDDP/Camera Press

“It’s my version of the Japanese breakfast salad,” he says. “The classic breakfast buffet in Japanese hotels has bits of fish, rice, miso and bowls of salad and tons of fresh vegetables, like cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, blanched broccoli, beans, and I love that. We’re all being told to eat more vegetables and this is a good opportunity. Salads wake everything up; they’re great for a jaded palate.”

There have always been dieting salad-eaters, of course, those who love salads for what they don’t have (ie calories) rather than what they do have. I have one friend who can spend hours obsessing about her relationship with cucumber. “I absolutely love cucumber,” she says, “or at least I always thought I did, but then someone asked if I’d still eat it if it was full of calories, and I had to admit it would seem pretty pointless then. I still eat it all the time, but they have kind of ruined it for me.”

Perhaps she should move on to radishes. Everyone else has. Goodbye, pomegranate seeds, these are the new must-have salad accessories and one of Gwynnie’s favourite things in the whole world. You’ll see them grated into Asian salads, scattered over the latest fashionable Middle Eastern grain such as freekeh or teff, or sliced over avocado on toast to add visual kapow to every Instagrammer’s favourite brunch.

Radishes are indeed deliciously peppery and crunchy. I like to eat them dipped in butter and salt, but that would be to defeat their main raison d’etre, which is that they are the only food known to man with fewer calories than cucumber. Anne Hathaway lived off them to lose weight to play a homeless 19th-century prostitute in Les Misérables that’s how few calories they have.

The heart of the salad revolution is based on something far more robust, though. Basically, salads have become man food too. Come lunchtime at the Savage Salads stall in Berwick Street Market in central London you’ll see the kind of queues you would normally associate with the latest dirty burger or bao bun restaurant opening.

The backbone of working Britain is demanding its greens

“I’d say about 60 per cent of our customers are men,” says the co-owner Kristina Gustafsson, who also has a stall in Victoria and will soon open another in London Bridge. For £5 you can get chicken and/or halloumi plus four salads such as white and red cabbage with dried apricots, kale, orange and poppy seeds or roasted beetroot, quinoa and pumpkin seeds. “Salads are no longer something you eat to lose weight. People want a wholesome balance, to feel good but still be full.”

In four years of business Gustafsson has seen the rise of different ingredients as fashions change. “People eat less gluten and wheat now, so at least two of our salads are gluten-free,” she says. “We use a lot of beans, chickpeas and quinoa. We used to do a potato salad, but that didn’t do well, so we switched to sweet potato and now it’s one of our biggest sellers.”

Gustafsson’s love of salad is nothing to that of David Bez, though. The graphic designer started eating salads in his office to shift a little weight. To keep his interest up, he made a different one every day for three years. What started as a challenge turned into a blog, a book, Salad Love, and has now become a restaurant, Salad Pride in Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden, London, where his beautifully plated dishes have earned him 21,000 followers on Instagram. His biggest seller is a mix of buckwheat, mushrooms, squash, peas, pumpkin seeds and micro greens with a sweet mustard dressing.

Bez’s formula for the perfect salad is a base of leaves, grains or vegetables to which he adds at least another two vegetables then two types of protein, such as seeds or nuts, cheese, meat or fish. On top of this he adds a good handful of fresh herbs, perhaps an edible flower or two (and you thought that was a trend you had seen the back of) and finally the dressing. “It’s not rocket science,” he says. Except, of course, for when it is.

“I love salads and it hurts me when they are treated just as a sad and unsexy side dish. I try to give salads the importance they deserve, as a complete and delicious course. When I started the project my colleagues looked disgusted. Salad, why would you want to eat that? They thought I was mad and would try to tempt me by saying ‘Let’s go to the pub, let’s have a burger.’ ”

When Bez opened his restaurant earlier this year, though, who do you think stumped up most of the seed money? Yes, those same colleagues who had laughed at him a few years before. Perhaps that’s the power of a good salad — it makes better people of us all.

Salad bar

  • 1970s
    In a cocktail, obviously, served in half an avocado if you were very lucky. Or with tinned russian salad if you really weren’t.
  • 1980s
    Spinach, bacon and avocado
    Eaten from a scratchy wooden bowl with your choice of french, blue cheese or, God forbid, thousand island dressing.
  • 1990s
    Asparagus, shaved parmesan and balsamic
    Black vinegar, and cheese that didn’t come out of a tub? What were those Italians thinking? We liked their shrivelled dried tomatoes, though
  • 2000s
    Caesar main
    Iceberg, chicken, cream, parmesan, no anchovies please, and loads of deep-fried croutons. More of a deconstructed club sandwich than a salad, really
  • 2010-15
    Middle Eastern

    Couscous, roasted squash, grilled fennel, preserved lemons, pomegranate seeds, toasted pistachios — and 15 quids-worth of freshly chopped herbs.
  • 2016
    Miso-glazed salmon and cucumber salad, dressed with mirin, rice vinegar and sesame oil. And — what the heck — with sliced radish too. I’m feeling naughty.
Grilled halloumi, golden beetroot, orange, red chard, walnuts, from Savage Salads© Kim Lightbody

4 new salad dressings (and one old classic)

Pomegranate dressing
Approx 4 servings

4 tbsp olive oil
50ml pomegranate molasses
1 tbsp red wine vinegar

1 Whisk the olive oil and pomegranate molasses together in a bowl, then add the vinegar and whisk again. Add salt.

Tarragon dressing
Approx 4 servings

1 banana shallot, very finely chopped
100ml sherry vinegar
200ml extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp tarragon, chopped
Pinch of salt

Whisk all the ingredients together in a bowl until combined. Leave to infuse for at least 30 min before serving.

Hazelnut and thyme dressing
Approx 4 servings

50g hazelnuts
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
1 tbsp thyme leaves, chopped finely
100ml groundnut (peanut) oil
100ml extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Toast the nuts in a dry pan over a low heat for 10-15 min until golden brown. Leave to cool slightly then chop or break them into pieces with a pestle and mortar.
2 Whisk together the ingredients, then season to taste.

Use romano peppers instead of the usual bell peppers© Kim Lightbody

Spicy romano red pepper pesto
Approx 4 servings

1 red romano pepper, halved and deseeded
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 tbsp grated parmesan
6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 200C. Place the pepper halves on a baking tray and roast in the oven for 20-30 min, or until the skin turns black and starts to blister. Remove from the oven and leave to cool slightly. Peel the skin off and discard.
2 Chop the pepper finely, place in a bowl, and mix in the remaining ingredients until combined.

Classic french vinaigrette
Approx 4 servings

100ml groundnut (peanut) oil
1 tsp dijon mustard
50ml white wine vinegar
100ml olive oil
Salt and black pepper

1 Slowly whisk the groundnut oil into the mustard until it is a thick emulsion. Whisk in the vinegar, then slowly whisk in the olive oil. Whisk in 50ml water and add salt and pepper.
Savage Salads:
Fierce Flavours, Filling Power-Ups by Davide Del Gatto and Kristina Gustafsson, Frances Lincoln, £16.99