Herbs are a group of plants with aromatic properties that are used for flavouring food, medicinal purposes, or fragrances. They differ from spices in that they are usually the flowering or leafy green parts of the plant, while spices are produced from its bark, seeds, roots and fruits, and are mostly used dried. Written records of the use of herbs in medicine and food date back more than 5,000 years and herbal remedies are the foundation of traditional medicine in China, Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia, and North America. The ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus thought herbs were so important he divided the plant world into three categories: trees, shrubs and herbs. And Emperor Charlemagne (742–814) compiled a list of no less than 74 different herbs to be planted in his gardens.
Parsley has a benign flavour and innocent looks but has attracted surprisingly bad press
In the UK, herbs are usually grown for culinary purposes and at this time of year it is the soft ones that really help to make summer dishes sing. One of my favourites is mint, named after Minthe, a nymph beloved by Hades, king of the underworld, who made her his mistress until Persephone found out and transformed Minthe into a plant. It grows by my back door and will be used all summer long for mint tea. Its aroma instantly transports me to childhood car journeys when my mother gave it to me in the belief it would relieve my travel sickness. (This was probably caused by the fact we were in backward-facing seats, trained from an early age to be on the look-out for police cars, as my father sped past the speed limit.) Despite growing like a weed at home, mint rarely appeared at our kitchen table except alongside roast lamb or stirred through just-cooked home grown new potatoes and peas. It was long before today’s fashion for middle-eastern influences encouraged us add mint to everything, from salads to strawberries.
Chives are another of my summer favourites. The Romans believed their flavour had powerful, strength-giving qualities and would feed them to wrestlers and racehorses alike. Physicians also prescribed them for relieving anything from sunburn to sore throats. Marco Polo brought them to Europe from China in the late thirteenth century and their mildly onion flavour has made them indispensable in the kitchen ever since. Their gentle heart lifts most savoury dishes, though be careful if you’re on a first date: Marcus Valerius Martialis noted in his Epigrams in 80AD that “He who bears chives on his breath is safe from being kissed to death.”
Dill needs hot dry summers with plenty of sunshine for successful cultivation, and its remains have been found in the tomb of Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep II, dating to around 1400BC. For me it has strong Nordic associations, since for a short time my father’s work took him to Norway and he always returned with pots of rollmop herring for us children; their sweet, salty flavours being totally addictive, we wolfed them down in no time. I also associate dill with making irresistible fresh gravadlax (salmon brined in a mixture of salt, sugar and dill) at the hotel where I once worked in Bath; even the chefs would be caught red-handed in the cold room pretending to “straighten the edges”.
Parsley has a benign flavour and innocent looks but has attracted surprisingly bad press through the ages, featuring in several contradictory myths and legends. The Ancient Greeks did not eat parsley because they associated it with death: it was believed to have sprung from the ground where Archemorus (“forerunner of death”) died, and parsley garlands were used to crown the victors at funeral games. In mid-seventeenth century England the saying “Parsley seed goes nine times to the Devil,” meant that it was slow to germinate: the superstition was that since parsley belonged to the Devil, it had to be sown nine times before it would come up.
Luckily, these devilish associations seemed to have been forgotten by the time we were growing up, since parsley was a common feature of my mother’s home cooking, either in stuffings or tossed as a garnish over most dishes. I still love parsley sauce with poached chicken or ham, which brings happy memories of when boil-in-the-bag cod in parsley sauce was a feature of home menus in the ’70s. But the saying that most resonates with me is the one I was told by an old boy whose house we were once interested in buying: “Parsley only grows well in a home where the wife is boss.”
The following recipe makes the most of these seasonal delights, serve alongside grilled or barbecued meats:
Traditional Lebanese Tabbouleh
1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
Handful fresh mint, finely chopped
4 ripe tomatoes, deseeded and diced,
half of the juice/seeds reserved
50g bulgur wheat
1 small onion, very finely chopped
or small bunch spring onion finely chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp each of salt & finely ground black pepper
Gem lettuce, to serve
Rinse the bulgur wheat, drain and transfer to a bowl. Add the chopped onion, reserved tomato seed with juices and salt and pepper and mix well. Set aside for 30 mins.
In a large bowl, combine chopped herbs and tomatoes. Add the bulgur wheat mix along with olive oil and lemon juice and combine thoroughly. Taste and adjust seasoning, including lemon juice and olive oil, if desired (it shouldn’t be too dry).
Chill in the fridge for at least one hour before serving, ideally two, to allow the parsley to soften slightly and soak up the flavours.
Mix again before serving. Tabbouleh is traditionally eaten by scooping into lettuce leaves.
Lydia Brownlow is a former cookery editor at Good Housekeeping magazine and contributor to The Daily Beast. She currently inspires children to cook. More info at lydiabrownlow.com