Herb Heaven at Cheltenham Literature Festival

November 25, 2010 at 8:42 pm 8 comments

‘Why do you like herbs?‘ asked the interviewer.
‘They smell good, they look good and they’re good for you‘.
They transform food: they’re easy to grow, scented and attract bees‘.

Beautifully simple answers from two women who have clearly given it a lot of thought.  Jekka McVicar, has spent the last 20 years running an organic herb nursery and Judith Hann, runs cookery courses using ingredients from her Cotswold herb garden.

Jekka and Judith’s hour long conversation about the power and potential of culinary herbs at last month’s Literature Festival last month was delightful.  Sprinkled with funny anecdotes and tales from their own family kitchens their passion and knowledge of all things herb is well known.  It made me realise just how overlooked and underused herbs are in my garden and kitchen.  I use shop bought herbal teas in a makeshift medicinal fashion and know a reasonable amount about the properties of different herbs but oddly it’s not translated into growing a wider variety of my own fresh herbs to enhance my food and health.  Is that how it is for you too?  I thought I’d share some of Jekka’s and Judith’s wisdom and perhaps we can compare notes next year about what’s new in our herb garden as a result?

Judith Hann’s herb heaven
If Judith could only choose one herb it would be Lovage for it’s spicy, celery like taste.  Close contenders would be Sorrel for it’s sharp, lemony flavour; Chervil for it’s aniseed taste and it’s overwintering resillience; and common Oregano for it’s endless uses in tomato sauces and tapinades.

Judith has 4 herb beds in her Cotswold walled garden.  Winter savoury is clipped into formal hedges while chives, salad burnet, parsley, alpine strawberries, violets, primroses and sorrel are also used to edge the formal beds.  There’s a large bed for salad herbs, including rocket, different types of sorrel, basil, coriander, Greek cress, parsleys, Japanese salad herbs like mizuna, as well as mustards and dill.  Tender herbs like lemon verbena, scented geraniums and blackcurrant, pineapple and tangerine sages are grown in pots so that they can over-winter in the greenhouse.  There’s even a ‘pudding‘ bed which contains natural sweeteners, Sweet Cecily and Angelica, Lavender, Rose and Bergamot for enhancing flavours in biscuits and jellies and edible Borage flowers for decorating cakes.

Judith started running her herb courses and selling her home-made herb products  to raise money for the Leaukemia Research Fund.  If you’re interested in attending one of Judith’s cookery days in Gloucestershire dates for Summer 2011 can be found on  her website.

Jekka McVicars herb heaven
When you give as many talks as Jekka and grow over 700 species of herbs you need  a good memory.  Which is why Jekka starts the day with Rosemary tea.  A single sprig soaked in boiled water to release the oils stimulates mental activity and concentration.  Rosemary tea is a favourite of mine too – like nature’s caffeine when flagging at the allotment or a late afternoon slump creeps in.

  • Rosemary cuts through fat and aids digestion (slam in the lamb)
  • Coriander is good for reducing bloating and stimulating appetite.
  • Feverfew is good for arthritis and soothes headaches.
  • Thyme infused oil dropsadded to bath water eases back ache.
  • Tarragon is good for toothache, Aniseed numbs the mouth.
  • Lemon grass leaves stimulate digestion and ease flatulance.
  • Comfrey  leaves simmered in olive oil make a wonderful balm for animal sores
  • Loveage is an aphrodisiac (loveage + randy makes you feel randy)
  • Stevia leaves are 30 times sweeter than sugar (deserves a post all of its own – watch this space) 
  • Herbs are much more than scent or flavour enhancers and Jekka’s Complete Herb Book has long been a favourite thumb through on my shelf.  It covers cultivation, container growing, culinary and medicinal uses for a wide variety of herbs.  Her latest book, Jekka’s Herb Kitchen, features 50 herbs with a chapter plus recipes devoted to each.  It was inspired by her grandmother’s recipe books quaintly named ‘lovely food‘ and ‘more lovely food’.  By the time I took this picture at Jekka’s book signing her pen had run out and she was down to the very last copy.  Needless to say it’s on my Christmas list.
    Jekka runs herb workshops from her nursery in Alveston, near Bristol on the handful of weekends she throws her door open to the public. Places fill quickly so to avoid disappointment plan ahead for 2011.

  • April 1st , 2nd, 3rd, 29th, 30th
  • May 1st
  • June 17th, 18th, 19th
  • July 22nd, 23rd, 24th
  • September 2nd, 3rd, 4th
  • If you don’t feel the need to find out how to combine herbs in pots or how to grow salad herbs for Autumn you can just turn up and browse between 10am and 4pm.
    If you can’t wait until next year and need a little help now there’s all sorts of useful tips and fact sheets on Jekka’s site like this ‘Caring for your herbs pdf

    © photos my own except cover illustration for Jekka’s cookbook by Hannah McVicar and Hann’s Herbs for pictures of Judith’s garden.

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    Entry filed under: away from the plot.

    stirring up old recipes you know it’s cold outside …

    8 Comments Add your own

    • 1. BitterSweet  |  November 25, 2010 at 9:49 pm

      The medicinal and culinary value of herbs simply can’t be overstated. I also keep an indoor herb garden during the winter, since I can’t do without those precious fresh flavors! Chives and mint are my two favorites- but not together, of course. 😉

      Reply
    • 2. Ann  |  November 26, 2010 at 9:05 am

      Very interesting Nic, my herb growing is very sparodic, some do well, some don’t. This year my basil was a failure.

      Reply
    • 3. hannah  |  November 26, 2010 at 9:10 pm

      fascinating…..WOW! I will try rosemary tea manana and lovage…oh yeah!! Sounds like we missed a great talk – thanks for reproducing a little – more please……

      Reply
    • 4. Mark Willis  |  November 27, 2010 at 7:26 am

      I share your views on herbs — everyone should grow them! My favourite photo in your post is the one with the butterfly. What type is it?? I have a large patch of oregano which the butterflies just love.

      Reply
    • 5. Nip it in the bud  |  November 27, 2010 at 1:48 pm

      Hannah – how fab to have an indoor herb garden. If only I had windowsills and cats that don’t nibble plants…
      I share your love of mint and you’ve inspired me to add chives to my list for next year’s herb sowing.

      Ann – I find my herbs are either extremely hardy or rather fragile and have varying success too. Perhaps that’s more an indication of my gardening style than the herbs though!

      Hannah – lovage is high on my list too. I hear it makes a great soup.

      Mark – I couldn’t name the butterfly but you’re on the right track with the herb – it’s marjoram

      Reply
    • 6. Fiona Mayhem  |  December 3, 2010 at 10:53 am

      That butterfly looks like a small tortoiseshell, but I have never seen one with a blue band at the rear end of the wing. Could that be some kind of camera ‘hangover’ with the way the light has hit it?

      Still, very beautiful.

      Reply
    • 7. Nip it in the bud  |  December 3, 2010 at 5:28 pm

      no camera trickery, snapped as seen.
      Looks like this one which is also identified as a small tortoiseshell

      Reply
    • 8. Fiona Mayhem  |  December 3, 2010 at 5:59 pm

      Maybe it is just me that needs glasses? 🙂

      Reply

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