So begins the second week of my herb inspirations for Advent 2019…
My all-time favourite herb is basil. In the 1980s when I worked on a weekly partwork called Robert Carrier’s Kitchen I was involved in writing about vegetable and herb ingredients. One of my colleagues (then a designer, now a leading garden photographer) Derek St Romaine told me that he grew basil regularly to make pesto sauce for pasta and salads.
I decided to follow suit and started to send away to various companies including Sawyers Farm (Suffolk Herbs) for seed. Then they only listed five basils but 1990 their list had increased to 15. I also started writing about basil and Derek photographed the basils that I grew for an article in The Garden.
Now basil is everywhere in all the seed catalogues and also available as plants is a wide range, not just the large-leaved Genovese basil. My pesto endeavours continue year on year, but some years I try to make myself understand that less is more… and only grow a dozen plants for the pesto challenge.
The moment I love most is when the first true seed leaves appear and you can see the colour, shape and smell the aroma of the different varieties.
I grow the perennial ‘African Blue’ throughout the year in the greenhouse in winter and outdoors in summer. It has a very pungent aroma and deep purple veining on the leaves. It is so easy to propagate, as it roots well in a glass of water.
On my bookshelf there are three books devoted to basil. Basil, An Herb Lover’s Guide by Thomas DeBaggio and Susan Belsinger is a US publication. The late Thomas Debaggio was a renowned herb nurseryman from Arlington, Virginia. Here he collaborated with food writer and photographer Susan Belsinger from Brookeville. Also on the shelf is a more serious RGBKew study: Basil, the Genus Ocimum by Dr Eli Putievsky and Dr Alan Paton (edited by Raimo Hiltunen and Yvonne Holm). The third is a small book by the late South African herb specialist Margaret Roberts, The Little Book of Basil. All three in their different ways provided me with a rounded view of this herb that I fall under the spell of each year.
My thoughts have turned around two food writers with a little wander towards the artist Sir Cedric Morris. The first is Elizabeth David whose writings on the food of the Mediterranean, Italy & France were my staples in my early bedsit years in London. The chapter on Fresh Herbs at the beginning of Summer Cooking, one of the quartet of Penguin paperbacks still held in their original but now battered box, describes herbs through the traditions, personal taste and experiment of various cultures. Her own views are strong. Of sage: “it is too blatant, and used far too much; its all-pervading presence in stuffings and sausages is perhaps responsible for the distaste for herbs which many English people feel.”
What she would make of the year-round availability of fresh herbs? She suggests “dried mint is one of the most useful herbs for the winter…”
In French Country Cooking: “People who seriously intend to have good cooking grow as many kitchen herbs as they can, so as to have them always fresh.”
Another of her books that makes my heart sing is An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. My dinner tonight – just that! The book’s cover illustration by Cedric Morris is The Eggs, which belonged to her. The eggs are in a brown slipware dish and I was delighted to find a similar dish at The Town House, Spitalfields some years back.
The second writer is Marcel Boulestin who she quoted in A Book of Mediterranean Cookery: “It is not an exaggeration to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking.”
I re-discovered this slim volume, Herbs, Salads and Seasonings (1930, Heinneman), by him and Jason Hill with illustrations by Cedric Morris on my bookshelves today. Now curious about the co-author Jason Hill, a Harley Street neurologist, who also wrote The Wild Foods of Britain (1939) under this pseudonym. His great-granddaughter’s blog Tangerine Drawings just doesn’t give me enough clues.
I met Ethne Clarke, an American garden writer, in the 1980s when we worked for different parts of the publisher Marshall Cavendish. Ethne worked in ‘books’ and one of her major projects was a collaboration with Rosemary Verey, who credited her with the idea for The Scented Garden. Divided into three sections it covered herbs, shrubs, trees and climbers and fragrant exotica. Packed with information that only comes with knowing and growing and researching well, Rosemary Verey’s voice comes through clearly.
Ethne swiftly moved on to write six more books including The Art of the Kitchen Garden and then the book that I enjoy most of her portfolio, Herb Garden Design with photography by Clive Nicholls. Her writing about the herb gardens she knows and visits, as well as descriptions of her own herb garden, is laced with reference to herb history, but academic and dry it is not.
Although she credits all the garden owners at the end of the book there is not a gazetteer showing where they all are. Some I know from visiting them myself, but there are others whose mystery locations I would like to tease out now for future reference.
Ethne left her garden across the border in Norfolk many years ago and returned to the US where her writing and gardening career has continued to thrive. Today is her birthday (10 December) so it seems a fitting moment to note her as one of my advent herb inspirations!
When I began growing my own herb garden Rosemary Titterington was one of the first nursery owners that I bought herbs from. She started Iden Croft Herbs in Staplehurst, Kent in 1970. She also sold raspberries and strawberries, which she grew in the old walled garden of the property.
She was one of the pioneers of the herb industry: at the peak of her business she sent out more than 130,000 packs of fresh cut culinary herbs to markets and restaurants annually. Her edible flower range won a DTI Smart award, and she was often quoted and consulted in the press about the fresh herb business.
At Iden Croft she held the National Collections of Mint and Marjoram. She also grew salvia and thyme in a wide range of species. I used to order from her many medal-winning Chelsea exhibits and enjoyed visiting the garden she created at Iden Croft. Here she created one of the first sensory gardens in the UK.
A no-nonsense straight-forward herb grower she was so generous with her knowledge and whenever I needed information or conversations about herbs she was a ‘go to’ source. She also very kindly provided photographic locations and information for a book that I co-wrote with two others authors called A Handful of Herbs, for Ryland Peters and Small.
She wrote many books herself, including Growing Herbs in 1987. Illustrated with line drawings by Kimberley Bale, it goes straight to the heart of how to grow herbs for sale and how to create display gardens. I like the way the plant lists are in a handwritten style. Although the appendices at the back (lists of herb gardens to visit and useful organisations if you were setting up in the herb business) are largely out of date and superceded by many other organisations, her basic advice to a would-be grower still stands.
She was a member of the British Herb Trade Association and chaired its standards committee. Rosemary and her husband David sold Iden Croft Herbs in 2002. Rosemary died in 2018 aged 87.
(With thanks to her daughter Christine for the use of images of Rosemary Titterington.)
Kay Sanecki is one of my herb heroines: She died some 14 plus years ago but on my bookshelves her prodigious output about herbs lives on. I met her at a plant or garden conference. She was involved in so many garden organisations including The Garden History Society and the then Institute of Horticulture (now Chartered Institute of Horticulture). During her career she had worked for the Royal Horticultural Society but was probably better known for her garden writing. The book that gives me the most pleasure is her History of the English Herb Garden with a foreword by Anthony Huxley, published in 1992 by Ward Lock. Kay lays out the history of herbs in Britain, and in particular highlights the way modern books about herbs were produced, focuses on herb gardens and also the history of many herb growers and herb pioneers, and records the nurseries and herb farms, many of which no longer exist. The Herb Farm at Seal is one such. Here Miss Dorothy G Hewer started her herb farm. The lavender ‘Seal’ was bred by her.
Hollington Herbs, Chiltern Herbs, Valeswood Herb Farm in Shropshire (set up by Barbara Keen), Petals and Herb at Stoke by Clare, Suffolk (Mrs Kitty Campion) are among the names that intrigue me. Some such as Hollington Herbs were in existence fairly recently.
Just as fascinating is the history of herb growing for the perfume and medicinal trade as well as the establishment by Barbara Keen of The Association of British Herb Growers and Producers in 1976, which in 1981 became The British Herb Traders Association.
Among the books she wrote are: Wild and Garden Herbs, Practical Herb Growing, Discovering English Gardens, Discovering Herbs, The Complete Book of Herbs, Old Garden Tools, The Fragrant Garden, Fragrant and Aromatic Plants, The Book of Herbs, The Scented Garden, Spices, 1985 and The History of the English Herb Garden, 1992 and she also contributed to many publications.
Roger Phillips and Nicky Foy’s Herbs published in 1990 brought together wonderful photography and a flowing narrative about herbs and their uses. The book was divided into sections under various topics such as Culinary Herbs, Salad Herbs, Berries, Dye Plants and Strewing Herbs and Medicinal Herbs. Roger Phillips’ images, some showing roots and leaves of the various herbs, others in situ showing how they look as they grow, were varied in size and shape, and looked so natural. And the texts about each herb were such good reads. I loved the fact that they weren’t marshalled into ‘sound bite’ chunks, but just went their distance, filled with information and comment. Although there were no recipes formally set out, there was sufficient information to give you the confidence “to grow or gather herbal plants and use them for cookery, health and beauty”, to quote the book’s subtitle.
Mushrooms, foraging, trees, shrubs, roses, vegetables are among the many other topics that Roger has photographed, but for me his herb book is one that I enjoy browsing through again and again.
Probably the most precious items on my herb bookshelves is the booklet about Culpeper House and The Society of Herbalists. It doesn’t have a date on it but I imagine it was published around the time that these shops and consulting rooms were established. The founder of Culpeper House was Mrs C F Leyel (Hilda), whom I mentioned on Day 5. She was a formidable force in the herb world, with The Society of Herbalists later becoming The Herb Society and Hilda Leyel acclaimed as its Founder.
I bought it decades ago from a wonderful secondhand bookseller called CooksBooks based in Rottingdean, Kent. I wonder if any of you will remember poring over their quarterly catalogues and telephoning as soon as you could to secure your purchases.
Why it is important to me is that it marks a certain moment in herb history. Just a few years later the Pharmacy and Medicines Bill of 1941 put all of Hilda’s work in jeopardy.
What astonishes me is how many Culpeper outlets there were according to the catalogue… they were in London and the ‘English Spas and Watering Places’. I remember the stylish facade of the shop in Bruton Street in the 1970s, then owned by Ian Thomas.
This booklet lists The Directors and Advisory Committee members who were also formidable people of their time, and included Miss Edith Sitwell, Eleanour Sinclair Rohde and Christmas Humphrys.
Hilda Leyel wrote numerous books including a series called The Lure of Cookery. There were nine title in the series including Puddings, boiled, baked, fried, steamed and iced; Meals on a Tray, and Cakes of England. I have Green Salads and Fruit Salads and a modern version of Picnics for Motorists. My favourite read of her books is Herbal Delights published in 1937 by Faber & Faber. It covers tisanes, syrups, confections, electuaries, robs, juleps, vinegars and conserves according to its sub-title. In 1947 an updated paperback was produced.