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Herbs

UK Garden Centre - An introduction to basic herbs

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Some herbs are grown for their fragrance and others for their medicinal properties, but here we are concerned only with the main group – the culinary or pot herbs which are grown for flavouring or garnishing food. Once the use of herbs and spices in the kitchen was all-important in order to mask the taste and smell of meat, poultry and fish which were beginning to decay, but such uses are no longer necessary and so their role has declined.
It is generally agreed that too little use is made of herbs and spices in British cooking nowadays, but there is no general agreement on the difference between herbs and spices. Some authorities use the word ‘herb’ for a flavouring plant grown in a temperate zone and restrict ‘spice’ to the seed, root, leaf etc. from a plant grown in a tropical region. Others have a simpler idea – if it is green and is either a stem or a leaf then it is a herb, otherwise it’s a spice.
The definition chosen here is even simpler – a herb is a flavouring plant which we traditionally think of as a herb and not as a spice, and here are sixteen of the most popular home-grown types. All are quite easy to grow, and the standard requirement is for some sun during the day, a well-drained soil, fairly regular picking to keep the plant compact and the replacement of perennials every three or four years using divisions or rooted cuttings. The herb bed should be weeded regularly and in spring it should be cleaned and trimmed to prevent invasive herbs such as mint from taking over.
One of the joys of herb growing is that it is for everyone. If you don’t have a garden, pots of basil, thyme, chervil, marjoram, parsley and mint can be grown on the windowsill. You can be more expansive with a herb trough or growing bags if there is a balcony or patio, but for those of us blessed with an outdoor garden we can create a herb bed – the ideal home for these plants.
The choice of species is, of course, completely up to you providing the conditions are suitable, but there are one or two rules concerning siting and design. The first point is to construct the bed as close as practical to the house – herb gathering tends to be neglected in wet weather when the bed is situated at the far end of the garden. Wherever possible grow each type of herb in a separate pocket – you can do this the old-fashioned way by dividing the bed into distinct compartments (‘knots’) with a dwarf hedge of lavender or box. You can bring the idea up to date with a cartwheel design, using bricks or paving stones as the dividers, but perhaps the best plan is to cover a rectangular bed with small concrete slabs and then lift some in an irregular pattern to form planting pockets. In this way each herb can be easily reached, encroachment is kept in check and replanting can take place without disturbing surrounding herbs.
Most types can be raised from seed but it is more practical to buy them as small plants in pots from the garden centre. With shrubby herbs such as bay and rosemary you will only need a single plant but with smaller herbaceous herbs like parsley and chives you will require several specimens.
Harvest at the proper stage of growth – pick your requirements for immediate use when the plants are actively growing in spring, summer and autumn and also pick some for drying. Most herbs can be dried for winter use, but whenever possible basil, parsley, mint, chives and chervil should be used fresh. Dry herbs by hanging them in bunches or spreading them on a tray at about 85-90°F (29-32°C) for a day or two. The airing cupboard or a greenhouse are suitable spots – after this initial warm treatment they can be kept at ordinary room temperature for about a fortnight, turning them daily, until they are cornflake-crisp. Crush, discard chaff, and store inside an airtight container in a cool and dark place.
Deep freezing has revolutionised the preserving of soft-leaved herbs with the ice-cube method. Fill the cups of the ice-cube tray with chopped and blanched herbs and top up with water. Freeze, then store in polythene bags in the freezer. To use, drop a herb cube in the dish while cooking.
Remember to use herbs sparingly – their purpose is to enhance the flavour of the main ingredients, not to dominate them.

Mixed herbs: A mixture of chopped parsley, sage, thyme and marjoram with other herbs added as desired. The mixture is used fresh or dried and is mainly associated with meat and fish dishes.
Fines herbes: A mixture of finely chopped parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon. The mixture is used fresh or dried and is mainly associated with egg dishes.
Bouquet garni: A bunch of several sprigs of parsley, a sprig of thyme and a bay leaf. The bunch is tied with fine thread and tarragon or marjoram may be added. Enclose in muslin if dried herbs are used. Place in stock, stews and casseroles during cooking – remove before serving.


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