There are dozens of different herb species and hundreds of distinct varieties, and knowing where and how to use them lets you bring subtle and exciting new flavours to your cooking. You are, however, unlikely to discover this from the average cookery book. Most offer little in the way of information about how to use herbs, and include only a few commonplace varieties in their recipes. Unless you are an experienced and enthusiastic cook, or a vegetable gardener, your knowledge of herbs is probably limited to around half a dozen varieties. Many people never venture beyond dried mixed herbs and the occasional sprig of parsley.
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This is a relatively recent state of affairs. Herbs have been used for culinary purposes since ancient times. Our ancestors cultivated a huge range of species for medicinal use, and the routine use of many different herbs in the kitchen grew up alongside this. In a time when there was much less variety to the diet of ordinary people, they were used to add interest and flavour to food. Many herbs were also used as food preservatives, while others were used to ease digestion. The range of herbs eaten and the number of ways of using them were vast by modern standards.
There were ‘pot herbs’ for cooking, ‘sallet herbs’ for eating raw, and ‘sweet herbs’ for flavouring. A salad for King Henry VIII included over 50 leaves, buds, flowers and roots. Thomas Tusser’s sixteenth-century garden plan for farmers’ wives recommended that a well-run household should be cultivating 70 different salad and pot herbs. Herbs were an essential part of daily cooking until the Industrial Revolution. As the nineteenth century progressed, however, the development of modern medicine and an increasingly urbanised, gardenless population meant that herbs were no longer extensively cultivated or readily available. Only now, with the resurgence of interest in gardening and cooking, are we rediscovering their potential.
Our taste in food has developed exponentially over the past couple of generations; until well through the twentieth century, flavours in traditional British food were very limited, and herbs were restricted to a few familiar varieties. Herb grower Jekka McVicar recalls that when she started her nursery in 1984, there was little demand for anything beyond parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, chives, tarragon and fennel. Today, our culinary horizons have widened to embrace cuisines from across the globe, and our taste for herbs has expanded to match. Our new enthusiasm for herbs is also part of the growing desire to use fresh, local and seasonal ingredients.
Herbs can make all the difference to food, and it is not overstating the case to say that they define it; cuisines are characterised as much by the herbs and spices they use as by the staple ingredients of the region. Herbs add flavour, zest and piquancy to food, and they are endlessly versatile. They can be used to make teas, which are much better for you than ordinary tea or coffee, or used to flavour cold drinks. They can be added to salads, where you will experience their flavours at their freshest and most vibrant, and gain maximum benefit from their nutritional properties, which are diminished by cooking. You can add them to salad dressings, mayonnaise, mustard, butter, marinades or sauces, or use them to flavour oils and vinegars. And, of course, you can add them to every sort of cooked dish; it is difficult to think of a recipe that could not be enhanced by the addition of the right herb.
The availability of fresh herbs is still fairly limited; while the better supermarkets now stock a range of around a dozen, this represents no more than a quarter of the species that are readily available to gardeners. To experience the true variety and potential of herbs, you really need to grow your own. This is not difficult, even if you do not regard yourself as a gardener; many herbs are easy to grow, and most require little space. If you do not have a garden, many species will happily take to life in pots, or you could grow several varieties in a larger container by the back door. Specialist herb nurseries will offer you the choice of dozens of different varieties of herbs such as basil, thyme and mint, as well as species from across the globe for use in different cuisines. Growing your own also means that you can cultivate your herbs organically, for maximum health benefit and the best possible flavour.
Supermarket herbs, grown under glass, using artificial nutrients, and as quickly as possible, lack flavour and fragrance by comparison with their homegrown counterparts. Fresh is always best, but dried herbs are a useful substitute. If you are buying your herbs, the availability of dried herbs allows you to cook with many species that cannot be obtained fresh. If you are growing your own, you can dry many annual varieties to keep you supplied through the winter months. Others can be frozen, or preserved in oil or vinegar. Some, like chives and parsley, can be potted up and kept on a cool window-sill, or in the greenhouse, to provide fresh herbs for cutting during the winter. Thyme is at home in Mediterranean dishes, like broad beans braised with tomatoes and shallots. Parsley resprouts in the spring, adding a welcome piquancy to a potato soup.
Each type of herb has its own distinctive flavour and aroma, but herbs are affected by the ingredients they are combined with and the cooking methods you use, so this is not an exact science. The art of flavouring is to use just enough of a herb to enhance a dish, and not so much that you overpower it, matching the strength of the herb to the flavour of the dish. Herbs like dill and chervil need to be paired with delicate flavours, while others, like rosemary and sage, are more robust. Delicate herbs should be added towards the end of cooking, while tougher herbs are best added earlier, so that their flavour has time to permeate. The Creoles have a saying, ‘May lightening strike very soon the cook who measures herbs by the tablespoon.’ This sort of confidence comes only with practice, but once you are able to close the recipe book and add herbs with a free hand, your cooking will never look back.
Michael Littlewood is a landscape designer and the author of many gardening publications including The Organic Gardener’s Handbook. His new book, Herb Guide for Vegetarian Cookery, £5.95, provides an at-a-glance guide to how, when and where to use herbs, giving you the skills and the confidence to include a whole range of herbs in your cooking. To order, visit www.ecodesignscape.co.uk or call 01460 75515
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