All in the best taste
Herbs are easy to grow, smell glorious and are endlessly useful in the kitchen
Lines of chives growing in the walled Victorian kitchen garden at Ashtown in the Phoenix Park. Photograph: Richard Johnston
Professional chefs take their culinary herbs very seriously, a fact brought home to me a few years ago as I listened to the Michelin-starred chef Martijn Kajuiter enthuse about the delicate flavour that young borage leaves give to a sorbet. I then watched him meticulously harvest a tray of sea-blue rosemary flowers and tender sprigs of marjoram, lemon balm and pineapple mint for a sweet pizza dish he’d later cook in the kitchens of Cliff House Hotel in Co Waterford. For this Dutch-born chef, each herb is “a supporting act . . . [in] a concert where every instrument plays its part”.
Myself, I’d hate my garden to be without culinary herbs, which I grow for their flavour, their freshness, their seasonality, their versatility, their ability to attract pollinators into the garden and, not least, for the fact that they save me money.
Having a generous supply close at hand has also encouraged more culinary experimentation. I now know that mint not only makes a refreshing tea, a tasty sauce and a dressing for new potatoes but also adds a burst of flavour to everything from meat to chocolate mousse. And, while I knew that feathery dill brings a pungently aromatic taste to fish dishes, I’ve recently begun to appreciate that it also enhances the flavour of a lamb stew or a rice dish.
As for sorrel, I’d long loved using those sharp-tasting, lance-shaped leaves to magic up a fragrant summer soup but have discovered that those same leaves, so rich in oxalic acid, can be wrapped around meat as a means of tenderising it, or mixed through a salad to give a pleasant tanginess.
Most herbs are very easy to grow, either in the ground or in containers. Oregano, golden marjoram, lovage, sweet Cicely, salad burnet, sorrel, lemon balm, Russian tarragon, mint, bronze fennel and chives are the laid-back habitués of my garden, requiring little other than an occasional tidy up of their leaves. If they spread too much, I simply use a sharp spade to divide them or, in the case of mint, slice away the running roots. Hardy, tasty and useful, these perennials appear year after year when given a half-decent, well-drained, weed-free soil and a sunny position. Other common perennial culinary herbs such as sage, thyme, bay laurel and rosemary are more demanding. Mediterranean natives, they need a sharply drained, not too fertile soil, in a sheltered, sunny spot; grown in rich ground, they are less flavoursome and more prone to pests and diseases. Even then, sage and thyme require regular pruning – in late summer after flowering – to stop them from becoming leggy and woody.
Tender perennial herbs, such as lemon verbena (whose tiny leaves lend a sherbert-flavoured zing to homemade cakes, puddings and ice-creams as well as curries) will overwinter outdoors in very mild coastal Irish gardens. However, in my colder, inland garden, I grow this plant in a container and then move it indoors into a cool porch. The same goes for scented pelargoniums (suppliers include scentedgeraniums.co.uk), whose leaves can smell of roses, lemons, mint, chocolate, nutmeg, even cola-bottles, and were used by the Victorians as natural food flavourings in cakes, puddings and punches.
Chillies from seed
Heat and light-loving chillies (more properly a spice) can also often be overwintered indoors, but I grow them fresh from seed each spring (February-March), moving the pot-grown plants out into the glasshouse in early May. Young plants are also available from good garden centres at this time of year; if you want to grow them indoors on a sunny, south-facing window sill, make sure to choose a compact variety such as Apache or Basket of Fire.
Other herbs are naturally more short-lived. Examples include chervil and parsley. Both plants, I’ve found, grow best direct sown en-masse and left unthinned, giving me a patch that happily tolerates regular harvesting.
Annuals that must be grown from seed each year include basil, dill, and coriander (sow seed under cover and successively, at three-week intervals from early spring onwards for a steady supply). Basil is the demanding but delicious aristocrat of the herb world, and deeply dislikes being cold and wet. I sow the seed into two-litre pots of compost and position the pots along various sunny windowsills in the house.
All these aside, there are many more unusual culinary herbs also worthy of a space in our gardens or on sunny window sills; examples include Stevia rebaudiana (a natural sugar-substitute), fenugreek (curry-flavoured) and the Kaffir lime. Last but certainly not least, don’t forget wild herbs, such as nettles, wild garlic and wood sorrel. The latter is also known as the false shamrock, but don’t let that put you off . . .
See the website of the Dublin-based organically certified herb supplier Denise Dunne (theherbgarden.ie). Other recommended Irish suppliers include Peppermint Farm in Co Cork (peppermintfarm.com) and Herbs on Thyme (herbsonthyme.com)
April 17th-May 5th: Kiltrea Bridge pottery sale, which will include handsome garden pots. See kiltreapottery.com.