Jane Moore follows the herb trail from field to fork and talks to two chefs and two thirsty gardeners, asking them all about their favourite herbs – from rosemary to sorrel – and their favourite ways of using them
It’s barbecue season, and what better than a few herbs to spruce up those salads and cold drinks? Perfect. So now it’s time to create a useful little herb corner which will add scope and interest to your summer cooking.
Will ready access to a handful of fresh herbs lift your cooking to a new level? Read on to find some advice from local chefs about their favourite herbs and ideas on what to do with them.
The first stop on my culinary tour was my colleague at The Bath Priory, executive chef Michael Nizzero, who makes huge use of herbs in his elegant dishes. “Top of my list at the moment is lovage,” he says. “It works so well with seafood such as crab and lobster and is really nice and fresh tasting.” Not a common herb these days, lovage was used widely in kitchens in the past and Michael describes the flavour as a mixture of celery and parsley, and an invaluable addition.
Michael’s second choice is more familiar: “My father is Italian and I grew up with rosemary everywhere – inside the kitchen and out in the garden. I would not be without rosemary now,” he says.
Michael loves adding a sprig of rosemary to infuse a tomato sauce right in the last few minutes of cooking. His other suggestion is more elaborate, involving baking lamb shoulder with a salt and rosemary crust. According to Michael you cook the lamb first on a high heat to seal the crust and then lower the temperature to keep the moisture in. I think I’ll leave the cooking to him, however, and stick to growing the rosemary, especially as it’s such an easy-going garden plant. Not only is it edible but it also makes a lovely addition to the sunny flower border with its evergreen foliage and sky-blue flowers.
Michael’s third pick is a herb that he prizes more for its flowers than its leaves. “Borage flower is so nice and peppery as well as a beautiful blue,” he says. “It brings an amazing touch to a dish because of how it looks, and it also has its own flavour.”
The little self-seeding annual is a darling of gardeners as it is a fantastic attraction for pollinating insects such as bees. We happily allow it to seed freely around the kitchen garden and Michael has obviously been making the most of it. “It’s superb with smoked salmon, avocado and vodka crème fraîche,” he says. Being a more simple soul, I like to pop it into a jug of Pimm’s.
Luckily for me one of my neighbours is the celebrated Bath chef Christophe Lacroix whose previous restaurants The Pinch of Salt and Le Petit Cochon many readers will remember fondly. Christophe now has his own little bistro/café, Ma Cuisine, in Larkhall, and keeps the likes of me supplied with freshly prepared ready-meals that are better than anything I could cook myself.
So what herbs does he rely on to flavour his fabulous dishes? “Sorrell is absolutely my favourite,” he says. “Growing up in France it was near where my mother put out the laundry and we would pick it and eat it raw when we were collecting the washing.”
“That must be a French thing,” I say, as I’m not fond of the sharp, bitter taste. “Oh but it is very French,” agrees Christophe. “Salmon and sorrel is a classic combination in France – very old school.”
His second herb choice, chives, is more to my taste – I love that mild onion flavour when it is snipped over salads and omelettes. So does Christophe, although he favours using it with lemon to bring out the flavour even more – I’ll take his advice and try that for my salad dressings in future. Chives are wonderfully easy to grow and are very attractive with their fine leaves and pink flowers, which are also edible.
Christophe’s next choice leaves us both puzzling and leads to something of a comedy moment. “Sarriettes is a herb of Provence,” says Christophe. “But I don’t know what it’s called in English and you can’t often get it here.”
“Ah, I wonder if it’s savory,” I say. “But yes, most herbs are quite savoury,” says Christophe, looking slightly bemused. We’re both right, of course – it is summer savory, an annual herb with a peppery taste something like thyme which Christophe likes to use with slow-cooked dishes such as lamb.
TWO THIRSTY GARDENERS
The Two Thirsty Gardeners are a blogging duo based just outside Bath who like to experiment alcoholically and otherwise with plants of all sorts. Their ways with herbs are somewhat different to those of our two chefs.
With rosemary, for example, a sprig or two is simply dunked into a gin and tonic – “it really livens up the drink,” they say – and a stripped rosemary stalk makes a fine cocktail muddler, I’m told.
“We also use it as an adjunct from which to brew beer – combine it with coriander seeds and you’ve got a spicy, citrus base from which to make a pale ale or witbier,” says Rich Hood.
Another favourite herb of theirs is lemon balm, and that’s a real favourite of mine, too. This is an easy-growing perennial that, as Rich says, “pongs of lemon sherbets.”
He and fellow thirsty gardener Nick Moyle mix the leaves with raspberries to make a fruity syrup which they use in cocktails. The fresh or dried leaves also make an excellent summery lemon tea.
Their final choice, mint, is one I heartily agree with and for many of the same reasons: “We love the hardiness of mint. No matter how much we neglect it, it just keeps bouncing back!” says Rich.
That very robust nature is something of a problem for the gardener, though, as mint can take over the garden unless you give it strict parameters in a container. This approach gives you the opportunity to grow a few different mint varieties without taking up too much space.
Top of the Two Thirsty Gardeners’ herb list is apple mint, while ginger mint with its slight spark of heat is one of my favourites. “We use apple mint for making tea and mojitos,” says Rich. “Mostly mojitos.” Now that’s my kind of gardening.
Jane Moore is an award-winning gardening columnist and head gardener at The Bath Priory Hotel.