Savouring the flavour

Pretty and practical: From top, chives and golden marjoram; rosemary; and lemon balm forming a backdrop to aquilegia.
Pretty and practical: From top, chives and golden marjoram; rosemary; and lemon balm forming a backdrop to aquilegia.
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IT’S simple to buy those little glass jars of dried herbs – but have you ever thought how much easier and cheaper it is to grow your own?

Most herbs come from a Mediterranean environment, so all you have to do is replicate those conditions.

High temperatures aren’t really needed. Good drainage, gritty, poor soil and full sun is the key and they’re ideal for pots – a windowsill is ideal for starters.

TARRAGON: Make sure you buy French tarragon plants, not Russian, as they’re not the same.

The long leaves have an almost aniseed, but individual flavour, used in French cookery. It’s best with egg, chicken and salmon. Tarragon-flavoured vinegar is lovely in mayonnaise or Hollandaise.

BAY: Leaves are used to flavour slow-cooked recipes like soups and stews. They are also added to marinades and threaded on to kebabs.

A bay bush or standard tree is best grown in a pot and overwintered in a porch or conservatory.

CORIANDER: An Eastern Mediterranean staple, with a warm, pungent aroma. The leaves impart a distinctive flavour to soups, stews, sauces and spicy dishes. They are also used sparingly in salads and yogurt dishes. A half-hardy annual, I grow Calypso, a cut-and-come-again variety which is British bred for climate tolerance.

MARJORAM or OREGANO: A versatile herb which goes well with red meats, game and tomato dishes.

Oregano is the stronger wild form of marjoram.

I grow the golden variety throughout my garden, as it’s pretty and tough.

ROSEMARY: This woody, blue-flowering shrub is mostly used with lamb and chicken and garlic.

I have two, one planted outside in a bed with extra grit added to help drainage, and it survived last winter and spring.

The other is in a ceramic pot, which overwinters almost bone dry in the conservatory – just so I have easy access to the leaves!

SAGE: Its strong flavour is synonymous with stuffing, or cutting through fatty or rich meat. There are many variegated varieties, but I’ve always had trouble getting them to overwinter in a border. One for a pot.

THYME: A few sprigs add a warm, earthy flavour to slow-cooked meat and poultry dishes as well as to patés, marinades and vegetable dishes. There’s literally hundreds of varieties with different flavours (lemon, orange, etc).

Plants really like it tough, living in gravel, or on a drive to soften hard landscaping and perfume the air. Bees love them.

FENNEL: Another of my favourites. Toasted seeds are served with seafood. The sweet, mild licorice taste is used with meat, vegetables, soups, tomato sauces, cakes, breads, salads and dressings.

The bronze variety merrily seeds itself around my garden – I just pull out the inconveniently-placed ones.

* THERE are other herbs which do appreciate a slightly richer lifestyle, and will tolerate some shade.

PARSLEY: Always go for the flat-leaf variety. It is a Tuscan staple in an odori (parsley, onion, carrot, celery and garlic, sauteed in extra-virgin olive oil), and tabbouleh, the Lebanese parsley salad.

MINT: Used widely in Greece to enhance stuffed vegetables and fresh dishes, and in the Middle East with yoghurt dishes.

Never plant mint directly into a border, as it’s invasive and will even creep over the top of a sunken pot. The apple and Moroccan varieties are particularly good.

DILL: Its feathery leaves have a mild aniseed taste, popular in Greece and Turkey. It is chopped into fish and chicken dishes, as well as stuffings and rice. Pickled gherkins and cucumbers are often flavoured with dill.

This is one that looks great in a border.

BASIL: One of the herbs most crucial to Mediterranean cooking. The sweet tender leaves have a great affinity with tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, courgettes and cheese. Always tear the leaves, don’t cut them. A herb I love but always falls victim to the slightest hint of bad weather or aphids.

LEMON BALM: The variegated variety is lovely in borders and imparts a lovely lemon tang to summer drinks.

CHERVIL: This pretty-leafed herb is like mild parsley and needs to be used generously. Widely used in French cooking, it works well in herb butters.

CHIVES: A grass-like herb which produces a beautiful purplish flower. Its flavour resembles mild onions. Use in salads and in omelettes or as an onion substitute. Look out for the stronger garlic or Chinese chives.