Mediterranean flavours make for fabulous summer food – but do you have the herbs to match? Adam Appleyard explores some of the classic aromatics.
Many of our favourite herbs are native to the Mediterranean, among them marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme. All pack big, punchy flavours and look terrific in the flower border, especially if you opt for ornamental varieties. What’s more, all bar marjoram are hardy perennials, so once you’ve got them established they should be good for several years. If you don’t yet have them all in your garden, you’re definitely missing out.
Many of the culinary applications of these herbs are well known and long established. Marjoram and oregano give depth and subtlety to tomato sauces, and thyme is a key ingredient of bouquet garni. Rosemary makes a terrific partner for lamb, and sage is a traditional way to enhance the flavours of roast fowl. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, unleash them on your desserts. Thyme works wonderfully well with chocolate, and oregano can give an unexpected lift to summer shortbreads and sweet biscuits. Rosemary will add an extra dimension to lemon cake, and sage works surprisingly well in ice creams and sorbets.
Most people happily use the leaves, but never think to use the flowers. Well, think again! All are edible; simply pinch them off and strew them on summer soups, salads or desserts, where they will add a subtle hint of flavour and an uplifting dash of colour.
There’s a certain amount of confusion about oregano and marjoram, fuelled by the fact that the oregano family consists of a number of closely related plants, one of which is marjoram. True oregano (Origanum vulgare) is a hardy plant with a strong flavour, whereas marjoram (Origanum majorana) is less capable of surviving cold, wet winters, and it has a sweeter, slightly more muted flavour. Sage and thyme are also represented by a variety of different species. The traditional garden sage is mauve-flowered Salvia officinalis, but it has some remarkably attractive edible relatives. The most notable of these is Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans), which is tall and elegant with striking scarlet flowers, and whose leaves do indeed give off a strong scent of pineapple when crushed.
“…a light spring pruning will help the leaves develop robust flavours…”
As for thyme, as well as growing common thyme (Thymus vulgaris), which is the best choice for culinary purposes, why not grow one or two of its tiny, delicate creeping relatives? Thymus serpyllum is a charming little thyme that comes in several varieties, including the diminutive, centimetre-high ‘Minimus’. Tough enough to resist trampling, on summer days it releases a heady Mediterranean scent when you walk on it or brush past. All culinary rosemaries are variations of the same species (Rosemarinus officinalis), but you can find variations in a whole range of sizes, habits and flower-colours.
Ready, Steady, Grow!
Since they share a common ancestry, it’s no surprise that marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme require similar conditions to flourish – most crucially, acid-free, well-drained soil and plenty of sunshine.
If your soil doesn’t drain freely then improve it with grit or plant your herbs in containers, because damp winters are their biggest enemy. Containers are also the best solution if your soil pH is low. Prune all of these species in late summer, after flowering, to encourage new growth and stop your plants becoming woody. In the case of thyme and sage, a light spring pruning will help the leaves develop robust flavours, and will keep your thyme – always prone to become straggly and wayward – within sensible boundaries. After a few years, think about replacing your plants. Rosemary will chug along happily for years, turning into a handsome bush, but the others have a tendency to sprawl and become woody. All are fairly easy to propagate from cuttings – and oregano, marjoram and thyme plants can also be divided in spring or subsequent to flowering.
Rosemary, thyme and some sages are evergreen, and their leaves can be picked year-round, although I find the flavours are generally best during summer. Marjoram, oregano and non-evergreen sages can all be dried very satisfactorily – pick the leaves before flowering for the best results.
A Garden Sinner and a Winter Winner
Given the right conditions, thyme, marjoram and oregano can be quite invasive, but compared to mint they are positively shy and retiring. Mint sends out sturdy runners that will quickly take over your whole garden if you let it, so think carefully before planting it. The best way to stop it running amok is to grow it in a large pot, either a free-standing one or one that you bury in the soil in a border. A moist spot in partial shade would be ideal, but it will thrive in full sun too. Feed well and water assiduously. If you’ve had a patch of mint in your garden for years, do yourself a favour and replace it; a new, younger plant will have bags more flavour than an old, tired one.
And don’t just stick with one variety, plant several. Spearmint (Mentha spicata) is an old favourite, but for my money Black Peppermint (Mentha x piperata) is much more fun, with maroon-tinted foliage and a pungent minty taste that really clears away the cobwebs.
Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) is one of my favourite herbs. With its soft, feathery leaves and delicate aniseedy taste, it makes a refreshing addition to green salads or creamy sauces. Sow chervil seeds directly into rich, moist soil in a shady spot — this is one of the few herbs that actively shuns the sun. You can sow in spring for an early summer crop, but I like to sow a second batch in mid-August for a late-season harvest. Despite its effete appearance, chervil is impressively hardy, and you can carry on harvesting it until Christmas or beyond. A year or two ago my chervil survived a -20°C cold snap, and the leaves were still perfectly good to eat when they eventually emerged from beneath deep snow in February.