Herbs are wonderful plants – they have culinary uses, medicinal properties and most are ornamental in the garden. It is no wonder that in these dark, gloomy days of winter I find that my dull thoughts can be lifted and I can be energised just by thinking about them and writing about them daily. This December (2018) I embarked on the writing of A Bundle of Herbs a Day for Advent, which I posted on Instagram. Here are the first eight days of herbs adapted for my blog. There will be two more instalments… and then maybe with the days brightening I will be able to start planning my garden and writing year with positive energy.
Day 1 – Aloe vera
Aloe vera just happens to be the starting point for me this December. Here in the UK I grow it indoors in winter and outdoors in summer. Indoors, it has to take its chances with me… as I can sometimes neglect a plant or two… but as it needs to be kept on the dry side in free-draining gritty soil it usually survives my tender care. And if I need it to cool down and heal any minor kitchen burns or mosquito bites it comes to the rescue with alacrity. In South Africa, where I grew up, there are many species that thrive in dry situations. The gel that oozes from the leaves when cut will heal and soothe if you apply it directly. There are also many cosmetics made from it and one in particular that I really rate is sold at Kirstenbosch Gardens in Cape Town. Mosquitoes and other biting garden bugs see me as a magnet and the bites usually cause me huge problems. Luckily for me I have the A. vera plants and also a supply of the gel from Kirstenbosch, thanks to friends who have purchased it for me.
Day 2 – Bay
Today’s herb is bay or, to give it its botanical name, Laurus nobilis. I think it is one of those herbs that everyone can grow. Even if your garden is small, or you have no garden, simply a balcony or window box, you can buy a small bay tree in a container. Obviously if you have the space, you can pick leaves from a larger surface area without over-harvesting the plant. I do have a large tree and so enjoy the walk out to the end of the garden (made it sound a great distance… in fact, it is a mere 26 metres away).
The stiff evergreen leaves are not palatable even after long, slow cooking, so either count them in or tie them together with string or in a muslin bag, so that you can remove them easily when the dish is ready and especially before you blend a soup or sauce. Bay is highly aromatic, with a strong balsamic flavour. It is useful in any dish that needs long cooking or extra strong flavouring. It gives oomph to stocks and bean soups, as well as to spicy foods such as curries. And it transforms and strengthens the flavours of milk-based soups, such as Cullen Skink, and baked milk desserts.
Bay, along with a couple of dried thyme sprigs and some fresh parsley, is essential for a bouquet garni, the essential herb bundle that stays in the pot throughout until you are ready to serve. In her book Herbal Delights (subtitled Tisanes, Syrups, Confections, Electuaries, Robs, Juleps, Vinegars and Conserves) Mrs Leyel, founder of The Herb Society, is clear that French cooking could be said to be founded on a bay leaf, due to its place in the bouquet of herbs… without which she says “no truly French dish can be properly flavoured.”
There is a bit of a conflict of opinion about whether it is better to use fresh or dried leaves. Dried leaves are said to have a more mellow flavour but don’t hold this flavour for long. I prefer to use fresh bay leaves when their balsamic flavour is strongest.
I loved re-reading Elizabeth David’s views on dried herbs and the way “some of us” keep them for too long! “Do you need to invest in dried herbs to bequeath to your grandchildren?” she asks in Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (1970).
Day 3 – Parsley
Parsley is my choice today: Petroselinum crispum is the curly mossy parsley which for years was seen just as the obligatory herb garnish on a plate… it is so much more than simply a garnish. For a start, the mossy form and the flat-leaf parsley that we have all brought into our kitchens straight from holidays abroad add clean, fresh flavour to salad leaves as well as to cooked sauces. Imagine a basic fish pie or baked cod without a freshly made parsley sauce! And then there is that wonderful aroma and texture that finely chopped parsley gives to salads such as Tabbouleh, where it is combined with chopped tomatoes, chopped onion, mint and bulgur wheat.
There is also root or Hamburg parsley, but I have not tried this myself… something for next year, perhaps.
Parsley is a hardy biennial, growing its leafy form in the first year and part of the second year, then going into flower and setting seed. I usually cut out the thicker flower stems as they appear and make at least two sowings, one in spring and the other in summer direct into the ground. I am harvesting flat and mossy parsley currently and will protect the rows with a layer of fleece as we move into colder weather. I do also allow some flowerheads to go to seed and to self-seed in situ.
And as I mentioned in the post for Day 2, it is one of the trio of herbs in a bouquet garni. It is also one of the mainstays of another French bundle of herbs, fines herbes. For this you chop or snip parsley leaves with chervil, chives, and French tarragon. If all you have in the store cupboard is eggs and a combination of these herbs, you will have the perfect omelette… one of my favourite dishes.
Parsley is packed with vitamin C and if you eat it raw you will experience its benefit as a breath-freshener. My dear father, who was never picked up for speeding, always threatened that if he were ever stopped and about to be breathalysed he would whip out a bunch of parsley and chew his way through it…. Thankfully he and parsley were never put to that test.
Day 4 – Mint
It is mint in all its wonderful flavours. Peppermint (Mentha x piperita), the ample leaves of apple mint M. suaveolens), variegated apple mint M. sauveolens ‘Variegata’, the slightly cloying eau-de-Cologne mint (M. x piperita f. citrata) and, best of all, one that tastes of strawberries, they are all thriving in pots somewhere in my garden. Oh, and not to be forgotten, there is also chocolate peppermint, which offers all the flavour of chocolate with no added weight or guilt!
Mint tea and probably mint sauce (I am using Stevia sugar instead of refined sugar to make my mint sauce) are my two top uses for mint, but then there is also mint with strawberries in high summer (the strawberry mint is perfect here), or chopped into a salad or into a cooling Pimms. I am still to learn how to make a decadent-sounding mint julep that I feel sure I first read about in that jazz age novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (perhaps over the festive season I will master this!).
The most exotic mint tea I have had was served was a few years back in Paris at the Salon de Thé at La Grande Mosquée in the 5th Arrondissement. Poured from a great height with flair into glasses, this honeyed Moroccan mint tea was the refreshing lift needed for a summer’s day.My latest mint delight is the yellowish/golden/green variegated ginger mint: you get the heat of ginger with the freshness of mint: a great two for one offer! At the moment they are mostly cut back, except for one or two in the greenhouse.
I miss the tang of fresh mint in the heart of winter, so have rooted some of these ginger mint stems in water and planted them up in the heated greenhouse. So far so good!
Day 5 – Garlic chives
Chinese chives or garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) is one of those herbs that offers leaves, flower stems, flower buds and flowers for the kitchen. In addition, I like the flowers as they make a good show in summer and if you let them go to seed, you have a seemingly endless supply of seed for the next season.
It has a more garlic than onion flavour, although is in the allium/onion tribe and I enjoy using its long, flat leaves, chopped, in omelettes where they offer a subtle garlic flavour, less intense that that of chopped or crushed garlic cloves.
Joy Larckom, who used to live in Suffolk, is one of my food and garden writer heroes. She is the person who brought so many wonderful Oriental herb and vegetable seeds into our gardens and cuisines following her own meticulous research tours in China. I use her book Oriental Vegetables, the complete guide for the gardening cook, as a basic bible for growing and using the many wonderful leafy greens that keep my salad colander full even in winter (although the garlic chives are perennial plants they die back or I cut them back to the ground in winter in the UK).
In China and Japan garlic chive stems and buds are sold bunched and often blanched (as you would celery in tubes in situ) to a golden-green shade. Joy mentions that the flowers are ground and salted to make a savoury spice. I am going to try this next year, but I am going to experiment and oven-dry a batch or two of the ground flowers before combining them with salt.
Apart from using the strappy leaves chopped in omelettes and salads, I also use them in stir-fries and chop the just-opened flowers into salads as well.
They do best in well-drained soil in a sunny site and are insect magnets. They don’t need to be lifted and divided, but if you harvest them intensively, then divide clumps every other year.
Day 6 – Calendula
Calendula or pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) is the hit of colour that I need today. Yesterday was such a grey and drippy day and yet still blooming in the raised beds is this bright beauty. It gives so much pleasure in the garden in spring, summer, autumn and even into the darker days of autumn. It is a simple annual and yet it has a long history of use in so many different cuisines and medicinal traditions. Since I have failed to produce sufficient (should really say any) stamen strands of saffron from the bulbs I once planted, in my kitchen I use calendula to colour and flavour rice. I also use it to flavour and brighten the look of salads: who could fail to have their culinary spirits lifted by the colander of colour that I recently picked?
Calendula is known for its soothing antiseptic qualities and there are many proprietary hand creams that you can buy, as well as make yourself.
And they self-seed prolifically… and I also help, since I snip off the spent flowerheads and ripening seedheads, often splitting them up in my hand and dropping the seeds there here and every where in the garden. Nothing nicer than a burst of orange at any time of year.
My original plants came from Kim Hurst’s Worcestershire nursery, The Cottage Herbery. Calendula is firmly embedded in all Kim’s nursery signs and logos, and she and husband Rob are calendula experts, saving seed and growing so many strong colour variations. Kim has photographed the zingy variations and is selling them in packs of ‘Myriad of Marigolds’ greeting cards.
She has also written two books packed with facts and tips about the histories and uses of herbs, Hidden Histories of Herbs and A Taste of Herbs. I enjoy dipping into both books to re-read the backstories of the herbs I love to grow. Kim and Rob have been growing herbs since 1976, selling seed and plants mail order and at shows.
Day 7 – Coriander
Here comes coriander (or cilantro in the US) or to give it its Latin name Coriandrum sativum. Also known as Chinese or Mexican parsley, it is one of those herbs that people either love or love to hate! It is well-documented that many of our household-name chefs have had similar antipathies toward this soft-leaved tender annual. Despite this, it is a herb with a long history of use for its spicy leaves and aromatic seeds. I used not to like it but now I cannot do without its pungent flavours, especially in salads, omelettes or chopped and combined with boiled eggs, as a cress alternative.
Elizabeth David says it was once cultivated on a grand scale in southern England, in Sussex in particular. She describes the seeds as having a sweet and organgey aroma when crushed: I am off to crush some of my home-dried seed to check this out. Coriander seeds are one of the staples in chutneys and pickles, and one of its early uses, was as a preservative.
Crushed, the seeds are useful in so many cuisines, especially as a base for curry spice mixes. I love using the crushed, cracked seed to spice olives, something that I found on holidays in many Mediterranean delis. There is a worn out pencil star next to Elizabeth David’s recipe for Coriander Mushrooms, giving a clue to how often I have come back to this dish as a hot or cold first course. Here it is bay and coriander seeds that pack the aroma punch. A bunch of fresh coriander is the base herb in that warming soup standard, carrot and coriander.
Day 8 – Thyme
My next favourite herb is the evergreen shrubby or mat-forming thyme (Thymus species). I like it for its amazing aromatic leaves and the flavour it offers in food, but I am also a big fan of its ornamental qualities. It grows best in sunny, well-drained sites and is a perennial woody plant or grows to form ground-hugging mat. Its small flowers in a range of pastel pinks, mauve and white, are bee-attractants.
Thyme is traditionally an ingredient of bouquet garni and is used to make forcemeat for stuffing for chickens and to flavour beef. The flowers and leaves are good in salads. The lemon-scented leaves of some species really pack a citrus punch into stuffings – and I am thinking turkey and Christmas here – as well as in herb butters for baked fish and grilled steaks.
There are so many different species: Thymus vulgaris or common thyme has deep green leaves and is a many branched woody subshrub with mauve flowers. T. vulgaris ‘Silver Posie’ has silver variegated leaves and a good flavour, while T. serpyllum ‘Citriodorus’ is a creeping thyme, with lemon-scented small green leaves and pink flowers. T. serpyllum ‘Snowdrift’ is also lemon-scented. Thymus x citriodorus ‘Silver Queen’ is variegated with creamy silvery leaves and rosy pink buds and a strong lemon scent to its leaves. If you are a collector then there many to find and grow.
I was reminded today that thyme is an important ingredient in the liquors Benedictine and Chartreuse… two that I haven’t tasted for many a long year. On a more down-to-earth level thyme has antiseptic qualities and was used as a fumigant to cleanse and perfume rooms. And then there is the poetry: there can be few who haven’t read Shakespeare’s lines about ‘a bank where the wild thyme blows’?