…where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred with it.
The exact meaning of this biblical proverb has been much discussed, but it seems generally to be accepted that a dinner of herbs represents a very lowly lifestyle, whilst the ox represents wealth. This article considers the contribution that herbs make to our dining and whether their status really deserves to be more elevated.
It’s interesting that the existence of herbs seems pretty much to have been taken for granted, even in the lowliest of circumstances. This is because originally herbs would have been gathered in the wild, so they were available to everyone. In much the same way that cattle will seek out the herbage that will remedy their ailments, so to our ancestors seemed to have acquired this essential knowledge. For herbs were originally consumed entirely for their health-giving properties, in fact several of the foods we eat today only found their way into the kitchen via the physic garden. It would have been noted that some medicinal herbs were more palatable than others, and these were then used as flavourings in the kitchen. Today we tend to separate herbs into two categories: medicinal and culinary, but in reality most culinary herbs also have medicinal properties, although some more pronounced than others.
I’m not sure quite why we lost this knowledge – Industrialisation, I suppose. For herbs were still very important in the 18th and 19th century kitchen gardens. However, by the latter half of the 20th century only a very few were considered garden staples – the Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme of Simon and Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair.
I think we have Jamie Oliver to thank for re-introducing a wider range of herbs to our cooking. He, of course, focussed mainly on Italian cooking, and it was in particular vast quantities of Mediterranean herbs that his recipes required – armfuls of flat-leaf parsley, coriander or basil. Even before he was an ambassador for Sainsbury’s he carried considerable clout with the supermarkets, in much the same way as the Delia effect had been notably caused by his predecessor in television cooking. So now we have pots of growing herbs in the supermarket as well as packs of quite a large range of cut herbs. With the exception of supermarket pots of basil, which needs to be grown indoors over most of Britain, I consider most of these herbs a terrible waste of money and usually very insipid in taste. How frustrating it must be to read a list of ingredients for a recipe and find that you have to take a trip to a supermarket for herbs before you can make the dish. Herbs are meant to be grown within easy reach of the kitchen, so that they can be cut, often in very small quantities, on an almost daily basis.
Some herbs are suitable for growing in pots on the kitchen windowsill, or in an outside window-box, so almost everyone can grow at least a few. For those herbs that require a little more space, consider the fact that most have been cultivated from plants that originally grew in the wild. You can forage for wild herbs, but, because you want to be able to nip out and cut them at any moment, I would think they are actually a prime candidate for Guerrilla Gardening. Grow them in any piece of land you can find near your front door – around parking areas are ideal.
In addition to having the more common herbs at your fingertips, growing your own also enables you to venture into rarer varieties. Edible flowers have lately become trendy, but we used to use them quite regularly as a flavouring. Throughout this year I will be focussing on the growing and culinary use of a particular herb each month. Some of them really can give you the basis for an entire meal (think of pesto), others play more of a supporting role, but all can make the world of difference between a boring dish of leftovers and the inspiration for a meal that is bursting with flavour and fit to grace any table – thus belying the opening proverb.
See January’s herb – Winter Savory