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Mache: America's Next Lettuce Love?

A worker at the Epic Roots farm in Salinas Valley carefully cuts mache leaves, also known as lamb's lettuce.
John McChesney, NPR News /
/
A worker at the Epic Roots farm in Salinas Valley carefully cuts mache leaves, also known as lamb's lettuce.
Epic Roots CEO Todd Koons hopes to make mache the next craze among American salad eaters.
John McChesney, NPR News /
/
Epic Roots CEO Todd Koons hopes to make mache the next craze among American salad eaters.

Twenty years ago, some Bay Area chefs returned from France with seeds for baby lettuces, and soon spring mix salad was born in the United States. Today, you can find the tender little leaves in bags and bins in nearly every grocery store. Since then, Americans have experienced a romance with radicchio, a rage for arugula, and a frenzy over frisee. Now, a California entrepreneur is trying to get American salad eaters to turn over a new leaf -- mache lettuce. NPR's John McChesney reports.

Mache, also called lamb's lettuce, has been cultivated in France since the 17th century. But in California's Salinas Valley, the tiny, dark green plant with the sweet, nutty flavor is making its American commercial debut under the auspices of grower Todd Koons. Koons helped launch America's love affair with bagged spring-mix salad, and he hopes to duplicate his success with mache.

Koons' task won't be easy. Because mache leaves grow very low to the ground, they can't be mechanically harvested like other baby lettuces, leading to higher production costs. Koons has engineers working on machines for mache that will have to be incredibly precise as they shave the earth to harvest the leaves.

More importantly, Koons must convince Americans that they need another salad green. Drew Goodman, chief executive officer of Earthbound Farms, the largest producer of bagged spring-mix salad, says Koons has his work cut out for him.

" I think he's got a ways to go in mainstreaming mache for all our palates," Goodman says.

Mache is now available in 800 stores around the country. According to Julia Moskin, a food writer for The New York Times, recent salad trends lend credence to Koons' optimism.

"In the 80s and 90s, there was a discovery of the more bitter and peppery herbs, like arugula and watercress, and that's how we come by these mesclun mixes that are now so popular and that are sometimes almost inedibly bitter," Moskin says. "And now we are seeing a movement away from that toward a more sweeter, gentler kind of lettuce, and to really sweet lettuces like mache and, say, Boston lettuce."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John McChesney
Since 1979 senior correspondent John McChesney has been with NPR, where he has served as national editor (responsible for domestic news) and senior foreign editor. Over the course of his career with NPR, McChesney covered a variety of beats and traveled extensively throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. His reports can be heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and newscasts.