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
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
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 before serving.
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 value.
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 required.
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 spirits.
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
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 climate.
Oregano should be dried when in early flower, hung
up to dry and then used sparingly.
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.