Do you know your crisphead lettuce from your butterhead?
Now We Know: Beyond iceberg is a rich variety of textures and tastes
Iceberg lettuce was introduced for commercial production in the late 1940s. Photograph: iStock
How do you like your lettuce – crisp or floppy? While many of us have languished in a life of iceberg lettuce dominance, those of us with access to home-grown lettuce will be well aware of the rich variety of textures and tastes that live within the lettuce family. Butterhead, cos, crisphead, loose-leaf. There is more to lettuce life than iceberg.
But there was good reason for iceberg’s dominance. It was “introduced for commercial production in the late 1940s”, explains American food writer Twilight Greenaway on smithsonian.com in a piece called Tip of the Iceberg: Our Love-Hate Relationship With the Nation’s Blandest Vegetable.
“Iceberg, or crisphead, lettuce was the only variety bred to survive cross-country travel (the name iceberg comes from the piles of ice they would pack the light green lettuce heads in before the advent of the refrigerated train car). Therefore, throughout the middle of the century, unless you grew your own or dined in a high-end establishment, iceberg essentially was lettuce.”
Iceberg is favoured by supermarkets, sellers and shops for its durability and long shelf life to this day.
In Ireland, the most common varieties are butterhead lettuce, non-hearting butterheads, cos and crisphead. You’ll probably be familiar with the floppy butterhead lettuce, the leaves of which are often used in a BLT sandwich, or to create the foundation of san choy bao, otherwise known as Chinese lettuce wraps. There are non-hearting butterheads known as red butterhead, oakleaf and lolla rossa. Lolla rossa is what happens when a frizzy lettuce head gets an ombré dye job – it has beautiful purple tips that bleed into its green heart.
The crisphead is an area of great culinary potential. When it comes to little gems, try them sliced in half and then grilled on a barbecue, served with crumbled feta and finely chopped toasted walnuts. When it comes to Caesar salad (otherwise known as the perfect salad for people who hate salad), cos is king. And, look, even the much-maligned iceberg lettuce has its place; sometimes all that is needed is a decadent dressing (think blue cheese and bacon) to rekindle a bit of buzz into a head of iceberg lettuce.
If you want to spread your lettuce wings, either seek out a local grower such as McNally Family Farm, which has a stall in Temple Bar Food Market in Dublin, or maybe even think about growing your own. According to home-growers such as Michael Kelly of Grow It Yourself and Grow HQ in Waterford (giy.ie), lettuce is easy to grow at home.
“It’s increasingly difficult to find good quality, fresh lettuce in the supermarkets,” states the lettuce directory on the GIY website. “Lettuce is easy to grow and with a little planning, you can eat it fresh for nine months of the year.”