An observer of the rise of British cooking, examining the stacks of glossy recipe books and hours of TV food porn we devour like starved animals, might picture a nation alive with lush forests of basil and chives. Perhaps, like Jamie Oliver, we all step from our rustic kitchens into gardens tended by a bearded man who finds compassionate ways to dispatch snails. Clutching great bunches of fresh herbs, we might then return to our stripped-wood sideboards to make our own pesto and throw flavour in our meals as if it were second nature.
Would that it were true. The only herbs most of us cook with don't so much flourish as fester in sorry little jars. We'll gamely throw a few almost-green flakes of basil into a tomato sauce, but who knows if it makes any difference. And that's the thing with herbs, isn't it: we all know mint goes with lamb and that basil and tomatoes are "best mates" as Jamie might say, but who ever has any? What's tarragon good for? And what on earth is lemon verbena?
Robin Gill is a rising star of the London chef circuit who wants to use his passion for herbs to inspire us all to branch out a bit. He is head chef at Restaurant Sauterelle, a fancy white tablecoth affair in the City of London. But we meet at his modest house in Brixton, south London, where his fiancée, Sarah, is helping to prepare a herb-infused feast.
Gill, who is 30, has become a fanatical herb grower of late but a walk through his kitchen reveals a tiny square garden dominated by block paving. "You should have seen the last place," he says, gesturing towards a tired basket filled with earth. "We used to have a little terrace but there's always room to grow a few soft herbs – mint and that kind of thing." The basket is now part of a three-sided bed that borders the paving. It's tiny, but every inch of soil is filled with edible greenery: fennel, sage, parsley, radish and garlic. "I just love the whole idea of being able to have a barbecue and pulling herbs straight from the garden," Gill says.
He has devised three dishes to show how easy and delicious herbs can be. First up: a sea bass ceviche with summer flowers and a fennel and citrus dressing. The ingredients include the leaves and flowers of nasturtiums, as in the pretty little plants your granny might grow. "They're lovely in salads," says Gill, whose stomach rather than a fondness for plants leads him on regular visits to his local garden centre.
Gill's zest for herbs blossomed late in his career, which began in a Dublin catering college. "There was absolutely no seasonality," he says. "We were surrounded by great produce but they'd teach you to make canteen food at best." The chef walked into a very different kitchen when, a few years later, he got a job at the two Michelin-starred Don Alfonso on Italy's Amalfi Coast. "Everything came from the restaurant's farm so you had no choice but to learn about herbs and vegetables," he says. Gill learned to make the herb the star of his dishes, an approach he later perfected under Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons, Blanc's Oxford restaurant.
It was only a year ago that Gill decided to try his hand at growing as well as cooking herbs. "If you go to an independent garden centre rather than a big chain they'll tell you what's in season and how to care for it," he says.
Whether you grow or buy fresh herbs, Gill says guesswork will get you far when it comes to matching herbs to foods (see his guide, above) and says that experimentation is key: "What's the worst that can happen? If it's a bit too strong, next time you'll know to pull back." Gill has now finished making the sea bass ceviche and has started roasting a rump of lamb for his next dish, which is to be served with a salsa verde ("basically oil and garlic plus whatever you want – mint, coriander, tarragon, parsley, chervil"). The dish done, it joins the fish on Gill's kitchen table, which we've carried into the garden (and why not?).
Last comes a lemon verbena sorbet. This unassuming shrub, also used to make tea, is one of Gill's favourite herbs. "It's probably better off in a greenhouse but I've had mine outside for five years during horrible winters and look," he says, pointing at a scraggly shrub. "It's already starting to flower."
FROM GARDEN TO PLAT E : ROBIN GILL’S RECIPES
Sea bass ceviche, garden summer flowers, fennel and citrus dressing
2 sea bass (filleted, boned)
Zest of one lemon and one orange
1 head fennel (slice the tops and outer layers)
20g sea salt
Bulb of fennel
2 cucumber flowers
6 chive flowers
1 bunch chives, finely chopped
4 nasturtium leaves
4 nasturtium flowers
4 rosemary flowers
1 cucumber (peeled, slice into ribbons)
20ml extra virgin olive oil
Sprinkle a flat tray with half the salt, sugar, fennel and citrus zest. Place the sea bass fillets, skin side down, on top before adding the remaining marinade mix to the flesh side. Cover with cling film and refrigerate for two hours. Then wipe away the marinade and pat dry.
Cut the fennel bulb in half, slice very finely using a mandolin and place into ice water with a pinch of salt. Slice the radishes and add to the ice water. Juice the lemon and orange and add a pinch of salt and the olive oil to make the dressing.
Thinly slice the fish and drizzle with the dressing. Drain the fennel and radishes and toss with the remaining salad ingredients and dressing in a large bowl. Serve on to four plates, placing the sea bass over the salad and serving immediately.
Roast rump of lamb, jersey potatoes, wild garlic, fresh peas and salsa verde
4 lamb rumps (fat trimmed and scored)
200g fresh peas
500g jersey potatoes, boiled and sliced
1 bulb new-season garlic (cloves separated)
1 bunch wild garlic leaves, chopped
100g kalamata olives
1 punnet pea shoots
100ml chicken or vegetable stock
1 bunch basil
1 bunch coriander
3 sprigs oregano
1 bunch parsley
1 clove new season garlic
Zest of a lemon
150ml extra virgin olive oil
To make the salsa verde, chop all ingredients roughly and blend with the olive oil until smooth. Refrigerate.
Blanche the new-season garlic before refreshing in cold water. Seal the lamb in a pan, fat side down, in a little olive oil on a medium heat. When nicely browned add half of the new-season garlic cloves and a pinch of salt. Place the pan in a pre-heated oven at 170C for 12 minutes, turn the garlic half way through. Add the stock to a pot with the rest of the new-season garlic and bring to the boil. Simmer for two to three minutes. Add the potatoes and bring again to the boil. Add the wild garlic, two spoons of salsa verde and heat through. Finish with a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon.
Remove the lamb from the pan and allow to rest. Place the crispy garlic cloves around a dish and add the remaining juices to the vegetable mix. Spoon the mix on to the serving dish, slice the lamb and place on top. Finish with pea shoots and garlic flowers.
Strawberries and raspberries with lemon verbena sorbet, olive oil, and basil
100g caster sugar
2 bunches lemon verbena
2 sprigs basil
1 punnet English strawberries
1 punnet English raspberries
1 bunch basil
Extra virgin olive oil
Place the water, sugar and glucose in a pan and bring to the boil. Simmer for a couple of minutes to dissolve the sugar and glucose. Remove from the heat and add the lemon zest and juice, basil and lemon verbena. Allow to cool for an hour.
Strain the liquid into an ice-cream machine. Churn and freeze. Alternatively, freeze the liquid in a tray and scrape the top every hour with a fork to make a granita.
Cut the fruit in half and place in a mixing bowl with some basil, lemon verbena leaves, a drizzle of olive oil and some fresh cracked black pepper. Layer the sorbet and fruit into frozen glasses and finish with a scoop of the sorbet, a drizzle of olive oil and some pepper.
How to match herbs with food
Goes with strawberries, tomatoes – most sweet things. Keep it inside and well watered.
Really great for meaty stocks and stews but will also add great flavour to a fish stock.
Adds aniseedy flavour to shellfish but not as strong as tarragon. Put into butter with mussels.
Good in most salads, finely chopped, with shallots, or in dips with crème fraîche.
Fish, chicken, shellfish and most Asian dishes. Works well with chilli and black pepper.
Goes with all fish, especially salmon and trout, or in crème fraîche with dill and lemon juice.
Lovely by itself, sliced in a salad or roasted in tomato soup. Use tops in marinade for fish.
Use wild garlic leaves in soups and lamb dishes or blitz in stock to make garlic soup.
It's strong but great in desserts: poached peaches with lavender pannacotta, for example.
Try it in a Thai broth with lemon, chilli and coriander, or in sweets such as pannacotta.
Delicious in fish dishes and in ice cream or sorbet. Also great dried in tea.
Perfect with lamb, of course, with crushed peas and olive oil or thrown into a salsa verde.
The leaves and flowers are lovely in salads. The leaves are more peppery, the flowers sweeter.
Works in most Italian dishes but also adds a great aromatic flavour to lemon ice creams.
Good with fish, meat, game and in sauces. Parsley soup with a poached egg is fantastic.
Use to marinate meat but also try infusing milk with rosemary to make a chocolate mousse.
Suits lamb and pumpkin. Fry with some butter and pumpkin to make a great risotto.
Its strong aniseed flavour goes with smoked fish, or infuse in soup or in gravy with beef.
Stuff some sprigs inside a chicken before roasting or add at the end of cooking a wintry stew. Combine with garlic to marinate duck.Reuse content