My advent herb inspirations are a mix of people, plants, books and places… in no particular order…
On Sunday 1 December, the start of Advent 2019, I needed a soothing cup of mint tea first thing. The mint in containers near the kitchen door is still doing well, so it was freshly picked and straight into the pot. Mint was the herb that I tasted first when I crawled down the garden path to the leaking tap where the mint thrived. My Scots grandmother showed me how to make mint sauce and I love to add mint to a bowl of strawberries and to plain yoghurt with chopped cucumber. And then there are Mojitos of course.
My gran’s recipe was very plain and simple… chopped mint leaves (my job when ‘helping’), sugar, boiling water and vinegar, leave to infuse.
On my bookshelf are several books that I turn to frequently for information: one of them US garden writer Barbara Perry Lawton’s book, Mints, A Family of Herbs and ornamentals, covers the many genera that make up the ‘mint’ family of Lamiaceae… Another is a small picture-led book by Jackie French, an organic grower from New South Wales, Australia. It is more specifically about garden mint, laced with folklore and highlights mint’s kitchen uses. In this book there is a recipe for a mint sauce with orange that would add a zing to any dish.
When I moved to Suffolk in the late 1980s I began growing a wider range of herbs and trying out all sorts of combinations. I began writing about herbs (more about that later) and so I wanted to see how they worked in garden settings as well as in a separate herb garden.
Like many herb enthusiasts I discovered Suffolk Herbs, at Sawyers Farm, Little Cornard. John and Caroline Stevens established this ‘go to’ place in 1974. It was at first open to the public only on Saturdays. Their own herb garden was a delight to visit in most seasons and they were among pioneers of wild flower and grass conservation seed mixtures. They also sold herb plants and my first ‘Sudbury Blue’ rosemary plant came from them. I have since bought it from other sources and love it for its very deep blue flowers. If you see the word ‘Sawyer’s’ in a plant name it will have originated from this farm (Chiltern Seeds, for example have ‘Sawyer’s Old-Fashioned Snapdragon’ in their catalogue, which they say was found growing on old walls on a Suffolk farm).
John’s book Gardening with Herbs, published by Collins & Brown in 1996, combined practical details with evocative images of herbs in garden situations, as well as a section on designing with herbs. It’s a book that reminds me so much of my own early herb gardening and whenever I pass the start of the lane up to Sawyer’s Farm I think of the Stevens’, their herb garden and the herb seeds and plants in my garden that came from their catalogue. Suffolk Herbs lives on though as now part of Kings Seeds in Kelvedon, Essex.
My herb shelves are filled with books written by delightful and interesting people, some of them friends, or who became friends as time went on. Elizabeth and Reginald Peplow became herb enthusiasts in 1974 when they moved to a Cambridgeshire village where they had a large walled garden. They learned all they could about herbs, set up a training school and shared their interests with like-minded others. Elizabeth began designing herb gardens for English cathedrals including Peterborough and Wells, and Reginald sold herbs and herbal products. They wrote many books; their first was Herbs, Country Crafts (Hamlyn1979). Further titles followed including In a Monastery Garden, and The Herb Book: An A-Z of Useful Plants. I’d like to find a copy of Stay Slim with Herbs & Spices (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1981), but for now the one I enjoy most is Herbs & Herb Gardens of Britain (Webb & Bower, 1984). The Peplows researched and visited herb gardens all round the country. Some herb gardens and nurseries such as Suffolk Herbs have long gone, and some, more recent, are not listed, but it is still an interesting snapshot of a particular time in the herb world.
In 2010 when I was editing Herbs magazine for The Herb Society one of the Peplow’s daughters Mary Atkinson wrote a note about her parents. Mary is a complementary therapist, tutor & author of several books on holistic therapy. I didn’t meet her but a few years later I met her sister Sarah Salway (@sarahsalway). Sarah is a novelist, poet & journalist & her writing can be found on her website writerinthegarden.com
Plants are often passed along to friends and meeting Sarah was like a garden gift from a couple of the authors who feature on my bookshelves… Sarah noted in an article that her mother wrote as she spoke; that she could hear her voice, steamrolling over any possible objection. “ even the smallest of backyards can be transformed into a fairy-tale herb garden with sweetly scented roses climbing up the wall & cushions of low-growing thyme & chamomile spilling over the gaps between the paving stones”.
Lavender is a favourite herb: it always sends me to Provence in my mind and a memorable family holiday in Aix-en-Provence in the 1970s. We stayed in a hotel in the wonderfully named Rue Rifle-Rafle. The hotel’s night porter, Josep, spent his days walking on Mont St Victoire where he collected bundles of Mediterranean herbs, including lavender. Bookshelf reminders of early plants purchases include Norfolk Lavender, Heacham (current holders of a Plant Heritage National Collection); the RHS Plant Trials Bulletin of Hardy Lavenders (2003, revised 2008) and a signed copy of The Story of Lavender by Sally Festing (1982, revised in 2009).
Lavender is so photogenic and this basket is at Downderry Nursery, Kent, owned by Simon and Dawn Charlesworth, also Plant Heritage National Collection holders. Their Hampton Court exhibits are enticing. Simon was recently awarded the RHS accolade of Master Grower.
In May 1994 Joan Head launched a bi-annual newsletter called The Lavender Bag. She wanted to put as much information about the genus into the public domain. At that time Joan was a holder of a National Collection and an intrepid traveller seeking out lavender in the wild. The lavender ‘Joan Head’ raised by New Zealand grower Peter Carter is named for her. No 30 issue (Winter 2008) was the last newsletter Joan produced. Today I had a delightful conversation with her about lavender and the newsletter, which today would have been digital.
But if you want to get to grips with the twists and turns of lavender then the monograph The Genus Lavandula by Tim Upson and Susyn Andrews (2004 Kew Publishing) is the publication to seek out.
First-hand experience was the foundation of knowledge for early herbalists and herb growers. Later compilations and texts were published and and the great books mostly called Herbals passed into the history and literature of herbs and their medicinal uses. A book that I enjoy dipping into is Herbals by Agnes Arber (I bought my copy from Mike Park books and it originates from the sale of the late Anthony Huxley’s library). The book, published by the Cambridge University Press is a study of Herbals, their Origin and Evolution from 1470 to 1670. I always turn to it when I want a glimpse into backstory of these famous tomes. Agnes Arber’s comments about the various texts including those about the twin giants Gerard and Culpeper, are a good read. Many examples of the herbals of these two writers are in existence.
A later edition of Gerard’s book: The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. Gathered by John Gerarde of London, Master in Chirurgerie, Very much Enlarged and Amended by Thomas Johnson, Citizen and Apothecarye of London. London: Printed for Adam Islip, Joice Norton, and Richard Whitakers, 1636 this copy belonging to The Herb Society, is held and displayed at the Garden Museum, London. Johnson’s work on it is much respected.
I have two versions of Culpeper’s British Herbal (1653), one too precious to use frequently, with delicate colour plates, has an inscription dating its ownership to 1904, and the other a modern version with large print, is easy to read and use.
Of the modern herbal standards probably the most celebrated is A Modern Herbal written in 1931 by Mrs Maud Grieve, founder of The Whins Medicinal and Commercial Herb School at Chalfont St Peter in Bucks. The text was edited by Hilda Leyel, author, herbal medicine researcher and founder of the Culpeper Shops and in 1926 The Society of Herbalists (later to become The Herb Society). My two-volume Dover edition is much-thumbed and used.
It is a neat full circle to arrive at the latest herbal in 2019, also called A Modern Herbal, written by journalist and horticulturist Alys Fowler (Twitter @alysfowler and Insta @alysf), who in 2018 became President of The Herb Society. In her herbal she touches on the history and folkloric associations but brings the herbs and their uses up-to-date as she describes how she uses them and offers those special insights that come from first-hand knowledge and experience. Her ‘Modern Herbal’ really does blow the cobwebs off the wonderful but historic texts of the past.
Food writer Catherine Phipps (Twitter @catlilycooks and Insta @catherinephipps) is one of my most recent inspirations. She is the author of four books, the latest of which, Leaf: lettuce, greens, herbs, weeds, is beautiful cover to cover, packed with recipes and text that makes you want to graze in any leafy corner of the garden.
Published by Quadrille, an imprint of Hardie Grant, Leaf, as you would expect, has much to offer my herb needs. So my own standard Herb Omelette will be enhanced by the addition of purple or green perilla or shiso, and by wilting half of the herb leaves in butter before adding the egg and herb mixture to the pan, the different stages will provide different textures.
I have already tried the Cucumber with Shiso and Szechuan Pepper Leaves. This was certainly a hot and cool offering, and you have to be sure to find the youngest pepper leaves if you are growing a Szechuan pepper tree. As the leaves age they develop really fierce thorns!
One of the stars is the cake I enjoyed as a dessert: Pear and Rosemary Upside Down Cake. Catherine’s secret weapon is the ginger-flavoured rosemary, which I just happen to have growing in my herb garden. It doesn’t look any different in habit, leaf or flower to any other rosemary, but wow, its foliage does pack a ginger punch!
You can rely on her for advice on drying herbs, making herb oils and butters, including a wild garlic and tarragon butter that I shall try in spring. Herb sugars, syrups and vinegars are also covered and many of the standard herbs in a kitchen repertoire are given a little more text-time.
I particularly enjoyed Catherine’s mini-rant against the ubiquitous and, in my kitchen, much enjoyed combination of basil with tomatoes. I am pleased she no longer feels bullied by basil and accommodates it as a microherb, or in the small leaf form of bush basil, although she still can’t be won over by its aroma by any basil when in flower.
The recipes which include great uses for curry leaf and kaffir lime leaves, are complemented by beautiful food photography and pairs or single spreads of ‘green pages’ where Catherine explains what it is she likes about or describes just how she uses particular leaves. She is very often led by the nose to find distinctive aromas and flavours. I so enjoyed her description of her nose and taste-bud recognition when she bought her first Vietnamese coriander plant. She realised it was laksa leaf, a herb that had eluded her until this point, despite being in plain sight in Chinatown known as praew leaf.
Rosemary is one of the herbs that I wouldn’t be without in the herb garden. Not only is it evergreen but it flowers early in the year, brightening any dull days from late winter into spring. The flowers can be blue (of varying depths), white and mauve-lavender in colour. Earlier I mentioned one of my favourites ‘Sudbury Blue’ which originated from Sawyer’s Farm, Little Cornard. Next up in the league is the ginger-flavoured rosemary featured in Catherine Phipps’ book Leaf (Day 6) and in Sour, another of the season’s big hitter book by Mark Diacono (more in another post). Mark is widely credited for bringing this aromatic rosemary into our kitchens and particularly in a cocktail in his book. My plant came from Jekka’s Herb Farm and has pride of place in the garden.
I am just about running out of the rosemary salt I made in the summer, so will have to make another batch when the weather warms up. It is so delicious sprinkled on potatoes before roasting them.
On my bookshelves there are many references to rosemary and one in particular is another in the Australian small book series written by Jackie French, A Book of Rosemary.
If it and many other books with mentions of rosemary were to be republished now the change in rosemary’s official scientific name would need to be included. Rosemary is now to be known as Salvia rosmarinus instead of Rosmarinus officinalis, which it has been known as since 1753. Salvia and rosemary had been considered distinct but research now shows that there is not sufficient difference for them to be two separate genera.
It may take us all a bit of time to get used to the new name but whatever it is called it is a great herb and a useful and ornamental garden plant.