From plot to pot: Why buy fresh herbs when you can pick them right outside your back door?
Carolyn Hart selects eight chefs' favourites to start growing now
Thursday 12 March 2009
Volume is what counts with herbs – and a certain impreciseness. You want handfuls, bunches, sprigs, even cupfuls, roughly chopped and cast into the pot with abandon. None of this accords well with the modern (let's say supermarket) method of selling herbs in tiny double-wrapped plastic packets or, worse, in pots in which they'll never flourish, but where they will die horribly the minute you start to use the leaves.
The answer is to buy herbs from proper greengrocers, by the fistful, wrapped in newspaper, at half the price. Or, grow your own – pleasing enough in any economic climate, but especially thrilling in the face of global meltdown. You don't need much to do it, either – a patch of ground near the back door, or a window box, or even empty tins of tomatoes lined up behind the kitchen sink.
"It's very easy to grow your own," says herbal queen, Jekka McVicar, but she adds: "If you are growing outside, prepare the ground first." Clear out winter debris, fork over and bestow a light dressing of organic fertiliser. If you're planting in containers, put in drainage holes."
Her must-have herbs include spearmint, compact oregano, winter or summer savoury ("a great digestif"), parsley, rosemary and French tarragon – "and make sure it is French," she advises. "Not Russian. French tarragon is raised from cuttings and makes your tongue zing with aniseed. If it tastes like upper-class weed, it's Russian."
In an age of instant gratification, it's good to know that your herbs can be picked from very early in their growing season. "Most herbs reach their peak of flavour just before they flower," McVicar says. "Snip off stems early in the day before the sun is fully up, or, even better, on a cloudy day, and cut whole stems rather than single leaves or flowers."
The list of herbs needed for a seasoned life is long: ginger mint, chervil, coriander, French parsley, chives, Corsican rosemary, garden thyme, angelica, fennel, winter savoury, Greek basil, buckler-leaf sorrel, bay, sweet cicely, garlic, Greek oregano, French tarragon, lovage, lemon balm, Moroccan mint, dill, lemon thyme, parsley, sweet marjoram. But you can transform your cooking by growing just seven or eight basics – most of which, once started, are fairly indestructible and will continue to repay use with more growth; an ordinary miracle in a world which more often equates use with obsolescence.
Rats hate the smell of mint, as do ants and fleas (rub a few leaves on your dog). For the Romans, mint was an appetite stimulant; today we know it more as a post-dinner digestif in the form of freshmint tea (much more delicious than the teabag kind). Mint leaves stewed with peas is one of those culinary matches made in heaven, and those wanting to disguise their beer breath can chew a few leaves.
Grow mint from the roots of an established plant. It likes a clay soil but will grow just about anywhere, and benefits from neglect and some watering in hot weather. Replant after two or three years in a different position. The trick is to stop it spreading; make sure that the roots are confined. Use it with teas, with vegetables, in ice creams, with chocolate, and to flavour meringues.
The idea that basil needs trauma to flourish may originate with the ancient Greeks, who assumed that it would not grow unless heaped with insults at the time of sowing. They linked basil to treachery and misfortune; the italians associated it with love but it took Boccaccio to put the two together in his tale of Isabella, the basil bush and her dead lover's head. Growing basil in this country is an infuriating process; it needs heat and sunlight and a little water (on the leaves as well as in the soil), not cloud and drizzle. Pinch out the new leaves as they form on the stems and never, according to Culpeper, plant it near rue. Basil with tomatoes is a god-like combination. Grow it indoors until June, then outside in full sun. Sow three seeds per pot in moist, medium-rich potting compost. When seeds have grown to roughly 3cm, pull out the weakest two plants. Use it with anything Italian but especially with tomatoes, in pesto sauces and with mozzarella.
This has a reputation for protective qualities – hide under its branches if plague strikes or the devil threatens and, if bald, wind a crown of bryony and bay round your head to ward off lightning. Bay puts up with shade, but hates frost. You can dry the leaves in an airing cupboard for up to a week, but if they go brown, they lose their flavour. It is difficult to grow, so buy from garden centre, shield from high winds, cut back in spring and give a liquid feed. Water it well in hot weather. Gather leaves for drying in high summer; fresh leaves can be used all year round
Use in custards and rice puddings, or add leaves to stews, soups and meat sauces. Grill dried leaves with fish.
Grow thyme where you can tread on it, and thus release the scents of an Elizabethan garden. Thyme comes in more than 100 flavours and varieties. Lemon scented thyme looks best in winter, but the silver-leaved varieties are the toughest and most flavoursome. Caribbean cooks use thyme in their mix for blackening fish. To grow, it likes cracks in paving stones and gravel. If you are growing it from seed, sow in multi-purpose compost and don't over-water. It thrives in drought conditions in warm sunny positions. Propagate it by layering in spring, and with cuttings in summer. Leaf flavour is most pungent in the summer. Use it with meat and fish, put sprigs into stews and soups, and scatter it over vegetables before roasting.
One of the few herbs you shouldn't chew if you want to be kissed – the aroma lingers like onion. But chives are excellent for lowering blood pressure and breaking down indigestible fats in food. Sprinkle on scrambled egg and stir into potato salad, and both dishes will be lifted beyond the ordinary. The mauve puffball flowers have a delicate flavour and can be used, with nasturtium flowers, pepper and lettuce, to make a very pretty salad. Grow chives from seed indoors, in spring, on a warm, sunny windowsill. Plant out in sun in early summer. Water in dry weather, cut back after flowering. Ideal in kitchen borders or in pots, and tolerates most soils. The leaves can be cut constantly until first frost.
"He that would live for aye/ Must eat sage in May," sang the medievalists, echoing the ancient Greeks and Romans who used sage as a mental stimulant. Modern research agrees that sage might be efficacious in warding off Alzheimer's. Arabian herbalists thought it a contraceptive, though I wouldn't advise anyone to count on it. Sage cheese has been made since the 17th century and sage tea was what the American patriots were forced to drink after they tipped all 342 of the East India Company's tea chests into Boston harbour in 1773. It grows well from seed. Sow three or four seeds in a small container filled with multi-purpose compost in spring. Plant out in June in light, well-drained soil in full sun. Use with pork, lamb and with liver. Excellent in cheese dishes, and adds sparkle to apple sauce.
Parsley first grew where the blood of Archemorus stained the ground where he was devoured by a serpent, and was used thereafter by the Greeks to decorate their tombs. During the First World War, parsley tea was found to be an efficient cure for dysentery. Today, we know it is rich in vitamin C and an excellent way to get rid of smelly breath (chew a raw leaf or two). To grow it, sow it all year round in containers. It needs six hours of sunlight a day and a rich, moist, well-drained soil. To grow outside, plant in rows, three or four seeds at a time, from May to July. Use it with soups, stews, sauces, as decoration, in salads, and with fish.
Sir Thomas More thought rosemary "sacred to remembrance". He loved it for his bees, too, and ancient herbalists used it as a hair rinse (boil a handful and strain), a wash for the skin and a tooth powder made from the ashes of the twigs. Placed in drawers, it scents linen and laid under beds it keeps troublesome dreams away. To grow it, take a semi-hardwood cutting from an existing two- to three-year-old plant between May and July. Cut a 10cm sprig of new growth. Remove all the leaves from the bottom half of the sprig, dip in rooting powder and plant in a pot of multi-purpose compost. Plant out after a few weeks in sandy, well-drained soil in sun. Use it with lamb, mutton, pork and fish, and to flavour roast vegetables
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