Food for Free this April in the West Country

Spring has arrived after one of the longest winters that I can remember.  It is joyous to be able to walk along the  lane and around our field and find so many herbs that one can pick and eat just as our forefathers did.

A Peacock Butterfly supping nectar from Ground Ivy.

A Peacock Butterfly sipping nectar from Ground Ivy.

Here’s fine rosemary, sage and thyme.                                                                                         Come, buy my Ground Ivy.                                                                                                           Here’s featherfew, gilly flowers and rue.                                                                                     Come buy my knotted marjoram , too!                                                                                Roxburghe Ballads ( 1740-1804)

Ground Ivy, Glechoma hederacea

Ground Ivy, Glechoma hederacea

In mediaeval times Ground Ivy was used to treat fevers and coughs .  Today the leaves are great with mushrooms or for making a lovely spring tisane.

Primrose was the first herb to appear this year in the garden.

Primrose, Primula vulgaris

Primrose, Primula vulgaris

As the weather had been so cold and grey it was wonderful to see these cheerful flowers.   The young leaves can be eaten as a salad or boiled as a pot herb. Traditionally the flowers were ground with rice,  almonds, honey and saffron to form a ‘Primrose pottage’.

Cowslip, Primula veris

Cowslip, Primula veris

When I was a child Cowslips were picked to make a wine.  Nowadays, due to the fact that this herb has become rare in the wild, this is no longer possible.   Medicinally they were traditionally used as a sedative.

Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica L.

Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica L.

Nettles on the other hand are profuse in my garden, so here is a delicious recipe,

Nettle soup                                                                                                                                              1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped                                                                                     1 clove of garlic,                                                                                                                                   2 potatoes, peeled and sliced.                                                                                                        2 large  handfuls ( do wear gloves) of young nettle heads.                                                1 Litre of vegetable or chicken stock.                                                                                     Olive oil, salt and pepper,                                                                                                                   Cream can be added prior to serving if you wish, but it is perfectly good without.

In a large saucepan add a little olive oil, the chopped onion, garlic and potatoes and gently fry for 3-4 minutes.  Wash and trim the nettles, add to the pan, add the stock. Bring to the boil, cover, reduce the heat, simmer until the potatoes are cooked. Liquidise and add the seasoning.  Serve with a dash of cream if desired .

Wild Garlic is also in profusion. Normally it would be in full flower if not going over by now,  this year it is still in the green.

Wild Garlic, Ramsoms, Allium ursinum L.

Wild Garlic, Ramsoms, Allium ursinum L.

The leaves are great wilted in butter and served with mash potato or added to soups or stews for flavouring.

All photographs are  ©  Jekka McVicar 2013

Traditional symbols of eternal life and happiness

We have passed the Equinox and the nights are drawing in.  The bees and butterflies are making the most of the glimmers of  sunshine, feasting on the nectar of ivy  flowers as they well know that the weather is turning and winter will soon be upon us.   I have always been fascinated about the traditional and ancient uses of Herbs.

Ivy, Hedra helix L. an evergreen native herb which, in ancient times,  symbolised eternal life, loyalty, devotion and undying desire, for it’s well known habit of attaching itself firmly to a wall or tree.

Bay, Laurus nobilis, was also considered a symbol of eternal life. The Greek generals wore a laurel wreath in the belief that, by doing so, they could cleanse themselves from the bloodshed. .  The Romans, adopted the Bay as a symbol of victory. The latin ‘laureate’ means crowned with laurels, a synonym for bay, hence Poet Laureate.

And Myrtle, Myrtus communis,  a personal favourite, for it looks good all season long and is so useful in the kitchen. In ancient times, and this tradition has returned, was the symbol of love, marriage and fertility.  The Myrtle wreath was often worn by brides and bridegrooms.  In Wales it was believed that the destruction of the Myrtle is tantamount to killing love and peace.

So these three herbs, Ivy, Myrtle and Bay  when arranged in a vase to brighten the home in winter  symbolises happiness,  love, devotion and longevity.

TheStars of the Chelsea Flower Show 2012

Thymus ‘Jekka’, Artemisia absinthium, Wormwood,Mentha longifolia subsp schimperi Eastern Mint, Atriplex hortensis var. rubra Red Orach, Papaver rhoeas Field Poppy.

I always find it truly amazing that, however worried I get before Chelsea  and whatever the vagaries of the weather, the plants seem to know that it is ‘Show Time’ and simply shine on the day.  Who would have thought it would have been possible to have the Poppy in flower especially as, one week before the show, they were still buds.

Papaver rhoeas, Poppy  and Linum perenne, Flax.

We grew them for 2 show gardens, the Arthritis Research Garden and the  L’Occitane Immortelle Garden, and used the surplus stock in our own display.  The simple splash of red draws you eye to see even more detail within the garden.

Istatis tinctoria, Woad looked stunning in the L’Occitane Immortelle Garden  and also the Renault garden in the new Fresh garden section of the show.

Istatis tinctoria, Woad, with Silybum marianum, Milk Thistle in front

This is a traditional dye plant which produces a blue/grey dye from the mature leaves. As a dye plant it has now been nearly superseded by indigo.

Isatis tinctoria, Woad, in full yellow flower under planted with Allium schoenoprasum, Chives,and Nepeta x faassenii, Catmint.

We also battled with the cornflowers for the RBC Blue Water garden and even they sprung into flower just in time.

Centaurea cyanus, Cornflower

But the star of this year, as in many previous years,was Angelica. It looked architecturally splendid on the M&G garden.

Angelica archangelica, Angelica

It also attracted the honey bees which were being constantly photographed on our stand.

The question of the show was about Alkanet and Borage as many seemed confused as to which was which .

To make it quite clear. Alkanet, like its first cousin Comfrey, is a herbaceous perennial reappearing each year in the same place.  It is not edible,  the roots produce a red dye which was traditional used to colour rouge.  Borage, on the other hand, is an annual herb which will happily self seed itself all round your garden.  The leaves and flowers are edible and medicinal. The flowers are synonymous with the drink  Pimm’s.

As we close on this years Chelsea we are already in full preparation for 2013, the 100th Chelsea Flower Show, which will, I am sure, be as spectacular as this year has been.

Thymus ‘Jekka’

Lemon Verbena, Aloysia citriodora

Now that the clocks have changed and the weather has transformed from winter to high spring over night,  it is the ideal time to prune your Lemon Verbena.

Be brave, cut back hard to just above a leaf bud or to where they will eventually form; they are easily visible on the stem.

By doing this now you will be rewarded with masses of new growth in the summer.

This will then give you masses of leaves too make  the wonderful tisane which is called ‘Verveine’ in France.

Alternatively you can make one my families favourites

Lemon Verbena Crème Brulee

My mother made the best crème brulee. Alistair, my son,  has inherited her passion for them and always rates restaurants and cooks on how well they make them. This is a wonderful recipe; the flavour with its hint of lemon sherbet makes this brulee very special.

Serves 4, Preheat Oven to 140°C/275F/gas mark 1

225ml milk

1 handful of lemon verbena leaves finely chopped, ( reserve 4 whole leaves for use as garnish)

7 egg yolks

100g caster sugar

60ml double cream

50g demerara sugar

Put the milk in a pan with the chopped lemon verbena leaves, bring to simmering point, remove from the heat and then leave to cool and infuse. Place the egg yolks in a bowl with the caster sugar and whisk until pale and thick. Add the cooled infused milk and cream, whisk well. Pass through a fine meshed sieve.  Ladle the mixture into 4 ramekin dishes and set them in a roasting pan. Pour in enough water to come three quarters the way up the side of the ramekins, pop into the pre heated oven and  cook for 1 hour or until set. Leave to cool and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Just before serving, sprinkle the demerara sugar over the top and caramelise with either a blow torch or by putting them under a hot grill. Decorate with some fresh lemon verbena leaves.

Recipe taken from Jekka’s Herb Cook Book

Bon Appetite

All photographs and text are  © Jekka McVicar 2012.  Please do not use without permission.

The sage words of Mary Berry

Watching BBC2 the Great British Food Revival the other evening, I was transported back to last August, when Mary Berry

Picture from the Great British Food Revival

visited Jekka’s Herb Farm. We have known each other for over 20 years but to date she had not visited the herb  farm  so it gave me huge pleasure to show her around and to be able to share together our enthusiasm not only for the flavour and texture  that  herbs can bring to food but also their social history.

During the transmission Mary said   ‘try something new’.   I know like myself she is concerned that the knowledge of how to use herbs in cooking is disappearing. We were both lucky that our mothers and grandmothers both cooked and handed down their knowledge. Sadly today,  as the availability of  many herbs becomes more difficult, we are all becoming more cautious about what we can and cannot eat.  So not only try something new in 2012, try something that our grandmothers used  in their kitchens .

Three of the herbs we chatted about in the programme were

Marshmallow, Althea officinalis

This native herb of the UK can be found growing wild mainly in the south and west of the country.  The Romans considered it a delicious vegetable, they used the young leaves and  roots  in barley soup and  in a stuffing for suckling pigs . I remember the soft , sweet marshmallows which were originally flavoured with the root of this herb.  It also has many beneficial medicinal properties.

Broad leaf sorrel, Rumex acetosa

Photograph by Torie Chugg

As a child, I remember going on many walks with my father all of which were adventures. He taught me to pick and eat Rumex acetosella, Sheep’s sorrel, that grows wild throughout the UK, and to chew on if  I was thirsty, just as the Roman Soldiers did. My mother on the other hand always had a large patch of broad leaf sorrel that she used with gusto in the kitchen. One of her recipes I use to-day is Sorrel and Lettuce soup, which can be found in Jekka’s Complete Herb Book, it is delicious on a hot summers day.

Lemon Balm, Melissa officinalis

Melissa originates from the Greek word for Bee.

Lemon Balm is a native of the Mediterranean but unlike many of its cousins, for example Thyme and Sage,  it has adapted happily to our climate so much so that I know it can be invasive in the garden. But despite that fact it is certainly worth growing, for not only is it beneficial for bees, they love the high nectar flowers, it is also incredibly useful  in the kitchen.  It is great with stewed fruit as it takes away the tartness.  You can make Mary’s wonderful Lemon Balm ice cream   and  you can also make a tea from the leaves, which is said to relieve headaches, tension and to restore the memory.  What more could you ask from a cuppa.

So I do hope that in 2012 you do try something that our ancestors used with relish.

© Jekka McVicar , Jekka’s Herb Farm,  November 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jekka McVicar and Jekka’s Herb Farm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.