The Great British herb revolution

Sales of herbs – and of herb seeds – are booming as never before. Jonathan Brown explains how they became flavour of the month for foodies, while Jekka McVicar celebrates 10 of the most versatile
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The Independent Online

There was a time when the closest most British cooks came to fresh herbs was while listening to Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits between courses. Today, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme are enjoying an unprecedented popularity that stretches far beyond the confines of the ancient Scarborough Fair.

According to new research by AC Neilsen, the market for fresh herbs in Britain is flourishing, with annual retail sales now worth in excess of £68m a year. The market analysts Mintel revealed this week that spending on natural aromatics has soared by 50 per cent in five years. Growth is expected to continue, with sales predicted to climb a further 12 per cent by 2012.

What is fuelling the demand is the ubiquitous presence of the celebrity chef. When Jamie Oliver recently advertised a recipe of roasted carrots with orange, garlic and thyme for his paymasters at Sainsbury's, the whole herb-growing industry saw demand surge.

Matthew Prestwich, whose company R&G Fresh Herbs has been supplying Waitrose for the past 38 years, believes that the turning point came 10 years ago when TV channels first started filling their schedules with celebrity cooking shows. "Our industry never needed rescuing. It was always going to grow. But you can't pretend the publicity hasn't helped," he said.

In fact, celebrity chefs can cause problems for the top five growers who supply 90 per cent of all the UK's fresh herb needs, particularly when the chefs use ingredients such as chervil, sorrel or marjoram that are not commercially available fresh. More committed herb enthusiasts are taking to growing their own. Tesco reported an 18 per cent increase in shoppers looking for seed kits, including more unusual varieties such as as chilli and sorrel.

Coriander, ideal in curries and other Asian dishes, continues to be the No 1 seller, accounting for one-fifth of sales – although flat leaf and curly parsley are more popular when counted together. Next come mint, basil, rosemary and chive.

Jekka McVicar, whose latest tome, Jekka's Complete Herb Book, is published next month by Kyle Cathie, has picked 10 of the most useful, interesting herbs for Independent readers, shown here...

Sage

salvia officinalis

The ancients deployed this strong-tasting herb to sootheulcers and ease snakebite. The Romans, who considered it good for the brain, werealtogether more warybecause it turned their iron knives black during harvesting. Today it is the subject of research into Alzheimers treatment. In the kitchen it should be used fresh – never dried – and added only in small quantities because it can easily overpower a dish.

Winter Savoury

satureja montana

Use originated in Sicily where the Italians have added this tangy herb to salamis for centuries. TheEgyptians saw it as more of a love potion, while the Romans deployed it to relieve stings and strained muscles. Cooks value it for bean casseroles, where it helps break down the enzymes around pulses, relieving flatulence as well as bringing a taste of the Mediterranean.

Seakale

crambemaritima

Native to Britain, sea kale also grows in the Mediterranean where the Romans preserved it in wooden barrels to be transported across the empire. The blanched leaves of sea kale are considered a delicacy and it is rich in vitamin C and magnesium.

Thyme

thymus vulgaris

The ancient Greeks used it in baths and burnt it as a temple incense. In the Middle Ages it was drunk in tea as part of a mystical ritual. Elizabethans used it as a nosegay. A few drops of thyme oil eases rheumatic pain; in the kitchen it is excellent with garlic and lemon in roast chicken.

Lemongrass

cymbopogon citratus

This tropical plant is a staple of South-east Asian and Caribbean cuisine. Most commonly sold in stem form, but the leaves can be used to make a tea which helps relieve stomach and gut problems aswell as acting as ananti-depressant and mood-enhancer. Grows well in the UK, though not hardy to frosts.

Caraway

carum carvi

Shakespeare served Falstaff a meal of a pippin apple and "a dish of carroway". Prince Albert preferred the seeds baked in a cake. Though it was in use from Mesolithic times it didn't arrive in Europe until the 13th century when it was believed to ward off witches and stop lovers from straying. Add to baked potatoes, apples and casseroles.

Rosemary

rosmarinus officinalis

Elizabethan sweethearts carried a sprig of rosemary as a sign of fidelity while bouquets of the herb were tied and dipped in gold as presents for wedding guests. Though everyone knows it tastes good with lamb, it is also instrumental in helping digest fatty meat, which is why it is also good with roast vegetables. Rosemary tea drunk first thing in the morning is a useful hangover cure.

Garlic

allium sativum

Renowned addition to sauces, meat and tomatoes, the ancients prized this mostversatile of herbs as a powerful medicine. It was used to sustain the strength of slavesworking on the Egyptian pyramids and saw service during the First World War when it was added tosphagnum moss to dress wounds. Today it can ease the pain of an insect bite.Gardeners should plant it on the shortest day andharvest on the longest.

Coriander

coriandrum sativum

Has been in use since Biblical times when coriander seeds were paid in lieu of taxes. The Romans combined it with cumin and vinegar to rub into meat as a natural preservative. In the Middle Ages it was used to make love potions. The root and the stem, normally discarded in British kitchens, can be added to curries to really bring out the flavour. Leaves should be added only at the very last moment.

Lemon Verbena

aloysia triphylla

The Rolls-Royce of herbs, thisoriginates from Chile but thrives in Britain. Its distinctive lemon-sherbert taste makes it an idealaddition to traditional jellies and ice cream though it can also be brewed in tea and infused into olive oil.A mild sedative and relaxant.

A salad for herb-lovers, by Mark Hix

Gone are the days of the spice and herb rack – now it's all about doing it for yourself and growing the real thing.

And even if you don't grow your own, I love the fact that you can buy pots of herbs in supermarkets, ready to take home. (By the way, I think chives are overrated.)

After a slow start this season, my herb garden is going strong – I'm growing basil, lovage, mint, parsley, oregano, chives, tarragon, rosemary and silver sorrel – which is a very unusual herb with a nice tangy lemony flavour which goes well in salads.

One of my favourite herby recipes is this classic salsa verde. It's perfect with simple grilled meat, fish or vegetables.

Salsa Verde

6 anchovies

A handful of capers in vinegar

1-2 peeled cloves of garlic

A bunch of mint

A bunch of basil

A bunch of flat-leaved parsley

1-2tbsp Dijon mustard

100-120ml olive oil

Finely chop the anchovies, capers, garlic, mint, parsley and basil. Then stir in the mustard and add the olive oil until you achieve a rough consistency.

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