No matter how big the space available I think I would always like to have a herb garden. As someone who can kill most plants on sight I have long given up hope of being able to fill a vase with flowers and any attempts at vegetables have failed. I can grow a good bramble seemingly anywhere but this capability with weeds seems to work well with some herbs so I can actually produce something to eat.
The idea of herbs is great too. Being able to eat anything you have grown is immensely satisfying. Generally it tastes better anyway through freshness but there is also an extra layer of flavour from appeasing the hunter-gatherer in us all.
The final benefit is economic. Shop-bought herbs are expensive and herbs can make cheap cuts of meat tastier for pennies and without resorting to more expensive, less healthy alternatives. And all within the space that a single planter or window box would take up.
I’ve probably shown a greater interest in cooking and food in the last 20 years or so. I’ve acquired in that time a large selection of seldom-used dried herbs. I’ve also somehow got the obligatory multiples of some – where presumably cupboard-blindness meant I couldn’t locate the last packet of ground cinnamon, fennel seeds or nutmeg. There’s also some blasts from the last when supermarkets didn’t sell fresh herbs – dried rubbed sage, dried parsley and dried mint. I’ve even got the occasional hard-to-track-down item in large quantities which only featured in one dinner party dish – sumac, dried lime and five spice.
The beauty of a herb garden though is that some of the produce is used over and over and the quality far outweighs the bought stuff.
In the eighties we had parsley. We had it everywhere unless my memory fails me. In my first real herb garden effort we had a large herb “wheel” in which most of the spokes contained flat leaf parsley. It grew like topsey without intervention and I could have harvested it I with a scythe. On of my favourite cook books is Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories. He chooses parsley as one of the core ingredients in it. As with most people he much prefers the flat-leaf variety to the fairy-pinched curly stuff. He also points out that you can use herbs like parsley in big quantities and even as a vegetable in its own right. Curly comes into its own deep-fried and crunchy. I think both parsley and coriander are great flavour enhancers with a wide range of foods though I never did manage to use up the whole wheel. In my current garden it doesn’t grow as well – never lasting more than one season. I think some herbs are easily bullied but most herbs need to get a good foothold – plant four or five rather than just one and maybe it will give it the start it needs.
Mint on the other hand just grows and grows. It is so virulent I plant it in its container. When we moved into the house we tried to remove an old herb garden which was out of control and we had mint coming through the lawn. There are loads of varieties with the strongest and best flavour coming from the small thin-leaved plants. The more rounded apple mints have furry leaves which make them less suitable for some dishes. Peppermint flavour actually degrades with cooking and so it also has the benefit of adding flavour with less workload. I love summer salads with mint – pea and bean, taboulleh. Home made mint sauce, mint tea and rich North African stews.
Rosemary is a very satisfying herb garden plant. Another from the mint family; it is a great scented plant for a garden anyway with an interesting foliage and purple flowers. Once established it is difficult to shift and old cottage gardens sometimes have hedges of the stuff. The long skewers can be used for barbecues. Simon Hodgkinson has a magnificent recipe for roast lamb where the meat is pierced with plugs of garlic, rosemary and anchovy before roasting.
I have never been successful with coriander and I don’t think I have ever seen it successfully grown in other people’s gardens. It is right up there with parsley as a fridge staple to the extent that it is worth buying a bunch if you see one at a good price. Fresh Choice in Ashbourne is excellent for fresh herbs – far cheaper than the supermarket – but many corner shops these days sell bunches of the stuff for pennies. Finishing off curries and Mediterranean dishes with freshly chopped coriander is a joy. It has a lovely cooling effect. To Simon Hodgkinson’s disgust it is often interchangeable in recipes with parsley in salsas and basil in pestos.
I have had even less success with basil in the garden. At times I have realised that all I am providing is slug food and definitely it is a one-season product. Basil is the one herb I think it is best to buy in the ‘live plant’ version in supermarkets. You don’t need a lot and so this means it can last for a few meals over a few weeks. It’s also a summer herb that goes well with tomatoes. Tradition says it has to be torn not cut although I don’t think I have seen the difference in flavour. Giorgio Locatelli is a great resource for anything Italian. In his view the best basil comes from a village called Pra and he has leaves flown over. For the rest of us his advice is to use the small leaves for the best dishes and his best basil goes in the pesto.
My favourite herb at the moment is thyme. I love throwing some sprigs into a stew or adding them to things being pan-fried. The smell is magnificent. It also works well with baked vegetable dishes. It’s easy to grow and hardy so perfect for my garden. This summer I was introduced by Carry Somers to the joys of thyme cordial which is easy to make, smells magnificent while being produced, and is a really refreshing drink on a sunny day. It also takes advantage of the classic thyme and lemon combination.
The other herbs I have at the moment are chives (chopped into salads and particularly potato salad) and sage – a real bully of a herb if overdone but a staple in the base of many a savoury dish.
We holidayed in France a couple of years ago and stayed in a hotel where tarragon and lavender featured heavily. I didn’t really like it if I’m honest but I’m growing an appreciation of the flavours and so I may add tarragon to the repertoire.
I use dill quite a lot with fish and Greek food but not enough to grow it. Dill is often sold in unfeasibly large quantities in my opinion. It is very strong and the only time I’ve got through a whole pack was when I made gravadlax once.
Before winter hits it’s a good idea to prepare herbs for the winter. Pick some leaves of the less delicate leaves, blanch them, dry them thoroughly (so that they separate when you want to use them), and then freeze in individual bags. For the more delicate leaves – parsley, coriander and basil – you are better off making ice cubes because the individual leaves won’t survive any other process. This way you can avoid the higher winter prices for often inferior products.