Two main versions of this herb are grown domestically – Winter Savory and Summer Savory. This article deals mainly with Winter Savory (as you may have guessed from its appearance under the “January” heading) but I will mention Summer Savory briefly here too rather than in a separate article.
Winter Savory is a perennial, and once you have established a plant it needs very little attention, whereas Summer Savory is an annual, usually grown from seed. I have not ever grown Summer Savory, although writing this makes me feel guilty, so I will probably feel the need to give it a go this year! It is after all, considered to be the better of the two versions, both in flavour and efficacy of its medicinal properties. However, it is the convenience and hardy nature of the Winter variant that has earned it a permanent place in my garden.
Summer Savory is native to the Mediterranean, where it is commonly referred to as the Bean Herb as it helps prevent flatulence (its other medicinal application is reducing the swelling from bee stings). Winter Savory has similar properties and, as it is more often during the winter months that we turned to dried beans to supplement the fresh vegetables available, this seems to me a more important consideration than the fact that Summer Savory may be even more effective in this regard. Winter Savory is also known as Mountain Savory, reflecting I suppose its wild habitat, but this confirms what I have observed about its hardy nature. Whilst not exactly living on a Mountain, I do live some 600 ft above sea level and, particularly during the previous two extremely cold winters when I lost several other “hardy” perennials, the fact that you could scrape the snow away and still reveal fresh Savory leaves counted for a lot. Like most herbs, Savory prefers a well-drained soil, and can be killed by a prolonged wet period, but it does not seem to mind the cold.
In flavour it is quite peppery, the winter version more aggressively so than the summer. Savory is also savoury by nature, and so it seasons a dish without the need for salt and pepper. Reducing salt intake is something many of us are advised to do, and herbs generally are helpful in this regard, but Savory particularly so. This is another reason why it is such a good partner when cooking beans, which cannot have salt added during cooking as would toughen the skins making the beans impossible to soften no matter how long the cooking time.
Other than with beans when do I use Winter Savory? Well, I tend to turn to it around September time when thoughts first turn to roasts. It is a good addition to stuffings whether for meat, fish or vegetables. The stuffing recipe I have given is equally at home filling a marrow as it is with roast pork for example. Superficially the appearance of Winter Savory is similar to thyme, although the leaves are larger and more separate, and, whilst not exactly the same in flavour, you probably could substitute Savory for Thyme in many recipes.
I have read that Winter Savory was commonly used as a dwarf hedging plant in Tudor herb gardens, but I find this a little hard to imagine as wherever I have planted it the plant has never gained much height, remaining a low spreading plant that provides good ground cover for rockeries or as an edging plant. There is a Creeping Savory, which never grows to more than 8 cm in height, but this has lime rather than dark green leaves, so I am pretty certain this is not the type I am growing. If you have a friend with a plant it propagates easily from a cutting otherwise you may need to try a specialist grower, such a Jekka’s Herbs, for a plant as it is less likely to be found in mainstream garden centres.
Cooking Beans with Savory
Savory can be used in any bean recipe both during the cooking and as a seasoning when served. Dried beans need soaking overnight before they are cooked, and then boiling hard for at least 10 minutes to destroy toxins. Following this initial preparation, drain the beans and recover with fresh water. Using an earthernware pot to cook the beans is said to further reduce their tendency to cause flatulence, so if you have one of these do use it, I also like their slow conduction of heat – beans respond well to long, slow cooking provided the initial boiling has taken place.
Having covered the beans by at least an inch with fresh water, add a good handful of savory and other flavourings, e.g. celery, onion, bay leaf and garlic cloves. Fresh slices of belly pork and a tablespoonful of black treacle produce unctuous beans, and this is the base I use for the French dish Cassoulet. If you want to add tomatoes (tinned of course at this time of year) to make a superior version of baked beans, remember that their acidity interferes with the softening process (in a similar way to salt) so add them towards the end of the cooking when the beans are already tender.
Whilst long, slow cooking in an earthernware pot is my preferred method for beans, they can be cooked more quickly. If I am just adding them to a minestrone style soup, or serving them as a warm salad, then after the initial boiling I would return them to a clean saucepan, cover with fresh water, add the Savory and other flavouring, and then just simmer until cooked. They should be soft in little over an hour. For a warm salad dress with a garlic flavoured vinaigrette and fresh Savory leaves.
Apple, Nut and Savory Stuffing
1 onion, chopped
25g/1 oz butter
2 oz hazelnuts, roughly chopped
1 stick of celery
1 small cooking apple, peeled and cored
½ tbsp chopped winter savory leaves
½ tbsp chopped parsley
50g/2 oz fresh white breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper
Heat the butter in a frying pan, add the chopped onion and cook gently until softened. Add the chopped hazelnuts and cook briefly to toast them. Chop the celery and apple and add these to the pan, followed by the herbs and breadcrumbs. Season and stir to combine adding a little more butter if required to bind the stuffing together.
Excellent for stuffing vegetables such as marrow, but also good with meat, especially pork.
10 oz haricot beans
piece of belly pork (approx 1-1½ lb)
4 cloves garlic
1 tbsp molasses or treacle
2 sticks of celery
2 bay leaves
2 level tsps. whole grain mustard
4 duck legs (fresh or confit)
4 Toulouse sausages
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 8 hours
Soak the haricot beans in cold water overnight. The following morning drain them and cover with fresh water. Bring to the boil and boil hard for 10 minutes. Drain and place in an earthenware pot together with the belly pork and flavourings. Cover with cold water and put in the oven. Bring the temperature up to 200C/Gas Mark 6 (or start in a cold oven and transfer up to a hot one so as not to crack the earthenware pot). Once the liquid has got really hot reduce the temperature to 180C/Gas Mark 4 so that it remains simmering. Cook for 2 hours, checking the water level after the first hour.
Now that the beans are just cooked, reduce the oven temperature to 150C/Gas Mark 2 and continue cooking for a further 3 hours, checking the liquid level occasionally and adding more water if necessary.
Now add the duck and sausages, pushing them well down into the beans and cook for another 1 –1½ hours (the longer time for fresh duck).
Remove the lid and cover the surface with breadcrumbs. Cook without the lid for a further hour, turning the meat and breadcrumbs three times to brown it.
Serve with a green salad, preferably dressed with walnut oil.
TUSCAN BEAN SOUP
The beans are more than just an addition to this soup, they also form the basis of the cooking liquor so no meat stock is required in this soup.
12 oz/350g dried cannelini beans, soaked overnight
4 ripe, well flavoured tomatoes (or use tinned)
2 sticks celery
11 oz/300g Cavolo Nero (sold in most supermarkets now but if you cannot find it use a dark leaf such as kale or brussel sprout tops)
2 cloves garlic
handful of winter savory
2 sprigs fresh thyme
6-8 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper
6 slices of stale country bread (2-3 days old)
7 oz/200g savoy cabbage
best olive oil
Pour off the water in which the beans have been soaking, place them in a large saucepan and cover with fresh water to a depth of 2″ above the beans. Bring to the boil and boil hard for 10 minutes, drain. Cover the beans with fresh water and add a small handful of winter savory if you have it. Bring the water back up to boiling point then reduce the heat and simmer for approx 1½ hours until the beans are tender but still whole. Drain the beans and pass three-quarters of them through a sieve or mouli-legumes into a bowl with 2 pints (1.2 litres)of fresh water. Reserve the rest of the beans separately.
Finely chop the carrots, celery and leeks. Heat the oil in a large saucepan and cook the vegetables until soft. Meanwhile peel, de-seed and chop the tomatoes then add them to the vegetables along with the garlic and thyme. After 5 minutes add the cabbage, salt and pepper and cook for a further 10 minutes before adding the bean puree. Cook slowly for an hour adding tepid water if the soup becomes too solid, although it should be a very thick soup.
About 5-10 minutes before the end of the cooking stir in the whole beans to heat them through. Finely chop the Savoy cabbage and sauté in a little oil. Serve the soup ladled over a slice of bread and topped with cooked cabbage. Offer finely sliced red onions and olive oil at the table.