The Herb Page
Today we are witnessing a revival of interest in the use of herbs for cooking and in natural medicines. Herbs are especially full of natural active compounds which are used in the body in various subtle and not so subtle ways. The following paragraphs detail some of the properties and non culinary uses of the active compounds contained within herbs. After which details are given on individual herbs and spices.
Herbal compounds belong to a number of different groups of chemicals.
Some may be found either throughout the plant or in specific parts of the plants. Most
herbs contain more than one active ingredient. Some of these ingredients may have no
effect when alone but when working in tandem with other active parts of the plants support
and amplify the effects of the other ingredient. Some chemicals within plants produce such
strong effects on the body that they are labelled as poisons. Very small quantities of
some of these "poisons" are used in the medical and pharmaceutical industries to
make very potent drugs. This however is beyond the scope of this page.
these oils usual have a characteristic often pleasant smell. They are
best taken into the body through water or steam. They are effective as expectorants and on
skin and mucous membranes. Medicines with essential oils work well for bronchial
complaints and perhaps more surprisingly in digestive disorders and to stimulate the
appetite. The umbellifer and legume families are especially rich in these oils.
These tend to be rather strong and have varied physiological effects. In
medicine they are very useful and examples include codeine and morphine from the Opium
Poppy. Alkaloids also include caffeine, nicotine and the opium derived heroin. Medicinal
plants common in Europe that are rich in alkaloids can be found amongst the members of the
lily, buttercup, poppy and nightshade families. This group contains some of the most
poisonous compounds known, so should not be handled by the amateur.
Are found in a wide range of plant families. They break animal proteins
up so that they don't rot and are therefore used to tan leather. They were used to treat
cuts, wounds and rashes externally. They are also used internally for inflammation of the
stomach or intestines.
are mainly yellow coloured and normally bound to sugars. They have an
unusual affect on the walls of fine blood vessels and are therefore used in mainstream
medicine for treating veins, high blood pressure and arteriosclerosis.
Are a group of bitter tasting compounds. They are used to aid digestion
and appetite. They also speed up fermentation and putrefaction. They are commonly found in
the mint and gentian families.
This herb comes from a tropical tree that is native to America. The
small sun-dried berries are sometimes known as pimento or Jamaica pepper, but are usually
called allspice because the aroma and taste seem to be a combination of cinnamon, cloves
and nutmeg. Allspice is not a mixture of these three herbs.
Flavouring for cakes, soups, meat dishes, milk puddings and vegetables.
The berries are often tied in a muslin bag for use in the making of preserves, pickles,
and chutney. Ground allspice helps to give pot-pourri its spicy fragrance.
Originally came from India, where as tulasi it was used in many
religious rites, particularly by the Hindus. However in Western culture it was far more
contradictory. Early Greek culture put curses on the strongly aromatic leaves, whilst the
Romans thought that basil's perfume caused sympathy between two people and was a sign of
love. Basil proved to be a valuable herb and was traded throughout the world.
This herb is more pungent when fresh, but it still retains much of it's
goodness and flavour when dried. basil is best known in combination with tomatoes. It is
delicious when chopped and sprinkled on circles of cold tomatoes from the fridge, on baked
tomatoes and in puree or juice. It is not limited to this and also combines well with
eggs, in potato salad, soups and stews.
Native to Southern Europe and Asia
Minor. Very important to the Romans and Greeks, where bay leaves were made into wreaths to
crown emperors. Introduced by the Romans to Britain. The tree was thought to have magical
properties where a pair of bay laurel tree outside a garden gate would ward off witches
and wizards. Laurel wreaths were commonly given as sporting, poetry and war prizes, from
where the expression came "Don't rest on your laurels", warning the successful
not to rely on the garlands of past victories.
Can be used straight from the tree or dried. It is a good idea to
include a bay leaf in soups, stews, and in the making of stock. The bay leaf is removed
Native to Eastern Europe, introduced into Britain by the Romans, and now
naturalised. It's rather nondescript appearance is misleading as it has great culinary
This herb is very good for growing on the kitchen window-sill. It is
very good to cut up and put into salads, mashed potatoes, and is particularly good in
scrambled eggs. The leaves have a fresh spicy taste, with a hint of aniseed. It is also
excellent in soups and with baked beans. When picking the plant, take leaves from the
outside, and leave the inside and let the plant regenerate from the centre.
Native to Britain and Ireland. The cultured variety was introduced by
the Romans. It used to be known by the name "rushleek" in the middle ages.
in the same family as garlic, leeks, onions and shallots. The grass-like
leaves have a hint of a taste of onion. Chives are generally added to soups and salads
when the taste of onion would be too overwhelming it is finely cut and generally used to
flavour cream cheese, salads, potatoes, soups, sauces and of course the classic addition
to sour cream for omelettes.
They are good companion plants to discourage black spot on roses, carrot fly and scab infections on apple trees.
Is a weedy annual native to southern Europe and Egypt where it
grows easily in the grain fields, it belongs to the same Umbelliferae family as parsley
and fennel, and has been cultivated in Britain since 1570. Dill is an ancient herb that
was typically found in Greek kitchen gardens growing among beets, lettuces, and onions. It
is very easy to cultivated the seeds can be sown in pots in March or April. It lends
itself to pot culture very well because it has seldom more than one stalk.
The entire plant, except for the roots is aromatic, but the large
feathery leaves are the best and should be used in yoghurt, vegetable dishes, cheese
spreads and with fish. The seeds can be used in pickling vinegar, cakes, bread and with
rice. Herb tea made from dill is useful against flatulence and colic, especially for
children and infants. Slightly crush 1-2 teaspoonful with a mortar and pestle and then let
infuse in a cup of boiling water for 10-15 minutes. it is best taken before meals or as
Is another native of the Mediterranean countries and also
belongs to the Umbelliferae family. it was taken by the Romans to their conquered lands
and is today grown widely throughout the world. The two best known varieties are the
perennial, sweet fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and the finocchio or annual Florence fennel
(Foeniculum vulgare dulce). The Romans ate the young stalks, and medieval herbalists
recommended it for improving the eyesight and weight loss. Fennel was regarded as one of
the nine sacred herbs, for its great physical benefits and to guard against unseen evil
The Florence fennel is a better choice for growing, as the plant gives superior tasting leaves and in addition the whole plant may be used. Use the leaves in salads and the young stems in soups. The leaves are especially good to bring out the flavour of fish. The essential oil anethol is used to flavour some liqueurs and toothpaste. The fruits are sometimes used to flavour bread, apple pie, curries and sauces.
Beware: Do not gather from the wild as it can be easily confused with
a poisonous species.
Originally from Central Asia, it has been cultivated in Egypt
for over 5000 years! In Europe it is mainly cultivated, although it is sometimes seen as a
garden escape in the wild. it was once known as a valuable medicinal herb and today is
still highly regarded for it's beneficial effects on the digestive system and improving
Garlic tastes different, depending on how it is prepared. For instance if it is crushed in a mortar and pestle the taste is different that if it is crushed using a garlic crusher which squeezes the garlic bulbs. A mortar and pestle is also a lot easier to clean! Garlic is used in everything nowadays. Some slightly unusual tips are as follows;
1. When roasting lamb or mutton, especially if it seems to be a little on the tough side, make one or two incisions into the meat and insert cloves of garlic. This has the effect of tenderising the meat as well as imparting a wonderful aroma of garlic throughout the cooked meat.
2. Rub a small piece of toast on both sides with peeled garlic and place at the bottom of a salad bowl, with your salad placed on top, by the time it comes to tossing the salad, a fine delicate taste of garlic would have penetrated the salad.
3. The old favourite garlic bread. Crush 6 cloves of garlic with a mortar and pestle until completely crushed then add into 250g of Irish butter, spread on French stick, wrap in tin foil and bake until lightly toasted.
4. Good against vampires and frisky overzealous girlfriends ! Eat at
least three bulbs a day to keep your complexion looking well, however it will have the
happy side effect that you will be left in peace to enjoy the aroma by yourself. Tip for
really good weight loss as well as flatulence, eat hard boiled eggs and garlic for
breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Lavender is an evergreen/grey perennial herb. It is originally native to the dry and undernourished rocky soil of Italian and Greek hillsides, where it endures harsh sunlight and little water. The fine hairs on its leaves protect the plant from cold as well as conserving moisture. When growing this plant be careful not to overwater and plant in light sandy soil.
The name Lavender comes from the Latin lavare meaning to wash, and since
ancient times has been used in soaps and perfume. The unique aroma strongly repels flies,
moths and mosquitoes making it a natural ingredient for sachets, pillows, potpourris and
soaps during the fourteenth century houses and churches were strewn with lavender in the
hope of keeping away the plague.
Lavender was not used in making scented articles, but also in
confectionery, cooking and in medicine.
This herb is a tender perennial in it's native
Portugal. Marjoram has a similar savoury flavour to basil but is far more subtle and must
be picked before it will let out it's tender aroma. It comes into it's own after the
frosts have killed off the basil.
part of the customary bouquet of herbs for flavouring soups and stews,
in which thyme, parsley, marjoram and a bay leaf are normally recommended. marjoram is
perhaps even more pungent when dried than when fresh, when marjoram is just beginning to
flower cut some of it for drying and use in soups and stews. fresh marjoram leaves are
delicious when spread on a bed of cream cheese.
There are many different types of mint, each looking and
tasting slightly different. It grows wild in the Mediterranean area, and the herb's
rampant growth makes it appear to have been naturalised everywhere. The problem is not of
growing it, but of keeping it's growth in check. Some gardeners contain it by planting it
in a chimney pot or bottomless flower pot buried to its lip. this stops the relentless
spread of the roots. Mint likes fairly rich soil and lots of water, and plants grown in
the sunlight have a better flavour than those often more lush looking plants grown in the
shade. Taste any plant before you decide to grow it.
Mint has many qualities, one is that it helps the digestion, while
giving a sense of well being and relaxation. This herb is used in numerous recipes, in
iced tea, fruit salads, with peas, new potatoes, in mint jelly and sauce just to name a
few. mint sauce for lamb is made in less than a minute by putting a dessertspoon of dried
mint into a small jug with sugar, vinegar and hot water, stir and let settle. A teaspoon
or two of dried mint may be sprinkled on tomatoes just before they are grilled, fried or
baked. Chopped fresh or dried mint sprinkled into scrambled egg, mashed potatoes or
buttered vegetables before serving.
is an annual herb, native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa.
Member of the Cruciferae family which also includes sweet alyssum, candytuft, woad, cress,
horseradish and cauliflower. Young mustard greens make an excellent salad together with
cress, while the larger leaves being quite hot make an excellent contrast to some foods.
The seeds are dark red or light yellow depending on the species. the seeds are pleasantly
nutty to bite on, but to release the full flavour of the seeds a mortar and pestle is
required to crush the seeds.
It mixes well into white sauce, mayonnaise, potato salad, coleslaw,
steamed cabbage, herb butter, savoury spreads used in fish, pork and veal dishes as well
as adding variety to pickles and chutney.
A herb from the labiatae family, and one highly valued in Mediterranean
cooking. It is one of the marjoram, but far more spicy than sweet marjoram and therefore
should be used much more sparingly. The taste and aroma varies with the soil type and
Oregano should be dried when in early flower, hung up to dry and then
A tasty steak is prepared as follows, rub the steak with a cut clove of garlic, lightly butter then sprinkle with chopped dried leaves and flowers. Grill, then turn the steak and repeat the process.
Dried oregano leaves can be placed on tomatoes when baking, grilling or frying them. Mix finely chopped oregano and crushed garlic into the tomato paste used in spaghetti Bolanaise.
An almost indispensable herb, looked
on in the same way as mint, a herb we take for granted. It has been known throughout the
world for centuries so that it's origins are not clear, some authorities suspect that it
may have come first from Sardinia. Parsley has been a valued medicinal herb in ancient
times. It was particularly popular with the Romans who ate it on bread for their
breakfast. The Greeks however thought that it was a symbol of death and in England curly
parsley was associated with black magic. Parsley is rich in vitamins A, B, carotene and
has more vitamin C than oranges. It also has most of the important organic salts. It is
thought to be especially useful to the kidneys.
Best fresh, but can be used dried after it has been rubbed through a
sieve and sealed in airtight containers. It can be sprinkled on top of soups, for putting
in mashed potato, in casseroles and stews. It is excellent for vitamins and a tablespoon
of chopped parsley could green vegetables in a meal. Fried parsley with fish is superb.
The slate-blue poppy seed used for
cooking is produced from the annual poppy that came centuries ago to Europe from Asia. It
grows both wild throughout Europe and in gardens where decorative varieties have been
cultured especially for garden displays. this particular poppy seed has no opium content,
which is taken from the unripe heads of the poppy Palaver somniferum.
Poppy seeds are used extensively in European and in Eastern cooking. The
tiny grains are a natural source of minerals. The seeds may be used whole or ground and
are splendid when combined with bread and cake mix. Whole poppy seeds have a vast number
of uses, they are sprinkled on breads, rolls, cakes, pies, mashed potato and are excellent
in white sauce and macaroni and noodles to make poppy seed noodles.
This herb flourishes and has more flavour when
grown near the sea. The name is from the Latin "dew of the sea". Introduced by
the Romans into Britain. Used to ward off black magic, it featured prominently on wedding
days and celebrations. Sprigs of Rosemary to this day symbolise remembrance and
friendship, in Australia a sprig is worn on Anzac Day.
Rosemary leaves give a strong fresh flavour and fragrance to food, particularly meats. As the leaves are thin and spiky, it is important to cut them finely, except when a sprig is being added to impart flavour to boiled meats. When dried the leaves are easily crumbled, and can often be used as an alternative to thyme, excellent in pea soup, minestrone, spinach soup, in casseroles and stews.
A perennial herb native to the
Mediterranean countries, the Romans having brought it with them. It loves a sheltered,
south facing very sunny position in well drained soil. It is highly esteemed for its
health giving properties, the traditional mixed herbs contain sage as well as thyme and
marjoram. sage leaves are at their most beneficial in the spring, before the flower stalks
begin to lengthen. This is also the best time for harvesting the plant for drying.
and is an ingredient in the classic sage and onion stuffing for poultry.
halved and buttered tomatoes sprinkled with sage and baked until tender compliment grilled
pork chops and apple sauce. A sage cream spread is made with 3 teaspoons of dried sage and
a few drops of lemon juice added to 4 oz of cream cheese.
Very important ancient herb, although nobody really knows where it
originally came from. It may have been Afghanistan, Africa, the Sunda Islands or East
Indies, it does not exist in its wild form today. A product of sesame is an edible cream
known as tahina, it is very popular throughout the Arab world.
Sesame meal, which is ground sesame seed is high in protein and
therefore popular with vegetarians who need non animal sources of good proteins. the meal
is used on salads and vegetables, and made into cakes. Sesame seeds are very popular
sprinkled onto rolls, bagels breads etc. where they impart a delicious taste. They can
also make an alternative to nuts in some recipes.
This popular plant is a perennial
originating from the Mediterranean countries. there are many sub species with different
shapes and sizes. the most popular for the kitchen are the grey, shrubby garden thyme, and
the green-leafed lemon scented thyme.
Thyme is used to flavour meat dishes, soups, bread stuffing's,
aubergines, courgettes, beetroots, onions and mushrooms. the young leaves may be stripped
from the stalks and used but the dried plant is more penetrating.
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