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

Spring Herb Watch

As we reach March, despite the cold wind, the signs of spring are now quite apparent.  The days are slowly getting longer,  the birds are singing beautifully.   Every morning and every evening I am accompanied, as a walk  around the farm, by the most beautiful song thrush whom I am pleased to say has a follower or friend near by.  Their song is so breath taking it makes me stop, listen and marvel .

Everyday  I can see  the signs of spring. The seeds of nasturtiums that I sowed  back in November are really beginning to grow away and flourish, they should be ready in time to adorn our retail stand at the RHS Chelsea which, as it is again situated on the main avenue,  has to look spectacular.  The French Tarragon that I bought into the glasshouse to  bring on so that I could start cuttings early is ready.

Photograph taken on 10.2.13

In our unheated tunnels  many herbs are growing well.  This Spanish mint has not been put off by the cold, grey  weather and  it is ready for picking to make a refreshing cup of tea or a mint sauce to accompany a  lovely English or Welsh lamb chop.  This mint is part of  our mint collection and will be able to be seen in the Herboretum at our Herb Fridays, when you will also be able to buy herb plants. 

Spanish Mint

The true signs that spring is on the way is in the garden,  many herbs are just begging to  emerge, chives, mint and  this buckler leaf sorrel  which can even be gently picked to add  a zing to a winter salad, or pep up a green sauce.

IMG_6566So, with spring in the air, it is time to get sowing, get potting and get outside.

It is 7 weeks until the first official day of spring.

It is officially only 7 weeks until the first day of spring, so I thought I would inspire you to grow some new herbs this year because herbs are the one collection of plants that can transform a meal into a feast.   Simply imagine tossing some Chive flowers, Wild rocket, chopped French parsley, amazing red Pak Choi,

some wonderful crunchy Purslane, and some hot spicy Mustard leaves with some Lettuce and you have a salad to whet all palates.

To me herbs fulfil everything one needs in a garden; they  look good, taste good and do you good, what more can you ask of a plant?

Herb garden June

Gardening for the table in landscape terminology is short term gardening.  It allows the gardener to experiment.  It also allows the gardener to be optimistic, for there is ‘always next year’.  So by even growing a pot of herbs on a windowsill or some rows of rocket in a container, it connects what you eat to the process of growing.  That growing process starts from the soil which is the engine of all gardening, be it in a container or a garden plot.   So for those of you who wish to grow your herbs in a window box or container it is well worth investing in a good potting compost .

French Tarragon

When growing plants in containers it is also worth investing in a good liquid fertiliser so that you can regularly feed your herbs.   Why feed the  plants?   Well, this is because the plant will quickly use all the nutrients and minerals from the potting compost and, to keep your herbs productive and healthy when grown in a container, you need to supplement their feed.

If the thought of Spring has inspired you I will be running a Propagation day course for 12 people at the Herboretum on April 6th and April 20th and a Herb garden design day course for 14 people on April 13th and May 4th .  And for those of you in the UK with eagle eyes the first ten of you to email the herb farm  with your postal address will be sent 3 packets of seeds, with our complements, to start your spring sowing.

The joy and beauty of the garden , Oregano.

Origanum dictamnus, Dittany of Crete

The word Oregano is derived from the Greek oros, meaning ‘mountain’ and ganos, meaning ‘joy’ and ‘beauty’, how right.  This is the most wonderful group of plants that not only look stunning at this time of year but are also useful in the kitchen  and very beneficial for bees and butterflies.

The leaves of this herb have a wonderful rounded flavour and a tea can be made from the leaves to ease an upset  stomach.   Sadly this  oregano, is now endangered in the wild.  To grow it in the UK you must plant it in a very well drained soil as otherwise our wet winters will cause it to rot.

Another wonderful oregano in this group is  Origanum ‘Kent Beauty’ much beloved by bees.

Origanum ‘Kent Beuaty’

These amazing bracts which surround the small flowers turn an even deeper shade of pink as the flowers fade.

The bracts dry beautifully making them ideal for dried flower arrangements and a wonderful Christmas presents for friends.

Origanum ‘Jekka’s Beauty’

This oregano I found as a seedling growing  along side  Origanum dictamnus.  I propagated it and found that it ran true from cuttings so named it Origanum ‘Jekka’s Beauty’.   The leaves of this oregano are also hairy, just like O. dictamnus, and they also have a good culinary flavour.

With all these special, beautiful, Oregano’s it is essential to cut them back hard after flowering so that they make a new crown of leaves which will then help the plant survive the winter months.  You will then  be rewarded with a spectacular display  in the following summer.

It’s that Thyme of the year.

I am a real sucker when it comes to thyme plants.  I can be found at plant fairs hunting them out, as others hunt truffles.  They come in all shapes and sizes.  They can vary in scent from wonderful spicy orange and a herby lemon to a pungent pine.  The leaves can vary from large and round to long and thin, or even woolly.  I defy any one not to want them in the garden especially when they are in flower.  Historically they have been used medicinally since Assyrian times, which was at the end of the second millennium BC.  Current research has shown Thymus vulgaris arrest the ageing process and is very beneficial in the treatment of stomach ulcers.

My collection has expanded over the past two decades to over  50 different thyme varieties and it is at this time of year they look so beautiful.

The best culinary thymes  in my opinion are, Orange scented, Thymus ‘Fragrantissimus’, Broad leaf thyme, Thymus pulegioides, Golden lemon thyme, Thymus ‘Golden Lemon’, Lemon thyme, Thymus ‘Culinary Lemon’ and French thyme, Thymus vulgaris ‘French’

If I had to just choose one it would be the broad leaved thyme as this is so useful with its large leaves that can be used whole or chopped, roasted with vegetables,

Thymus pulegioides

used in marinades, or infused in water then added to the bath to ease my aching muscles.

The  creeping varieties  are wonderful for bees and butterflies and spread delightfully over gravel and rocks. Here are just four to inspire you.

My top tip for growing thymes is to cut them back after flowering, this encourages the plant to put on new growth which helps to protect them from the vagaries of the winter.

We will be taking a lovely selection of Thymes to  this  years RHS Hampton Court , 2nd-8th July, where I am going to create a small herb garden that you will be able to walk through.  This will be situated down by the Rose Marquee site number TH/5   and near the Thames entrance.  Look forward to seeing you there.

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.