Cambridge cottage herbs and happy bees

posted in: Food writing and workshops | 0

Do herbs makes you fall in love with a house and garden? It was bees buzzing in the lavender and butterflies fluttering around the well-established herb bed that decided us on our 17th-century cottage on our return to Cambridge. I became even more interested in its history when I met an elderly gentleman walking past the field outside. He was born in the end cottage when it was two cottages and he told me more about the hidden bottle well in the garden.

Developing a herb collection

We inherited a large bay bush, prostrate rosemary, fragrant pineapple mint, lemon balm, mounds of chives, thyme, and purple sage, plus  Vietnamese coriander. We acquired and planted a cast iron pig trough with lemon verbena, chervil, hyssop,  myrtle, sorrel and lovage. Then we placed the herbs in terracotta pots on top of two layers of large and small gravel. However, the trough does not drain, so torrential rain always means a quick baling out.

Cottage garden herbs
Herbs growing in our pig trough
How to prune

Woody herbs such as the rosemary, bay, thyme and sage can get big, bushy and into herb bed domination. The spring is the best time to tame them, but I missed this opportunity so will prune after flowering finishes.  To prune effectively, do not cut into the woody stems, as they will not sprout new leaves. Rather remove the finished flowers and cut a third of all stems back to just a pair of leaves. Repeat this next spring on another third, to reinvigorate the plants gently.

Cambridge food history

Researching our local food heritage in Cambridge is a particular interest of mine as I have a background as a food scientist and culinary historian.  I have a fascination with herbs, their flowers and uses.

From my copy of “Pepys At Table” written by Christopher Driver and Michelle Berridale-Johnston, I have used a 1660’s recipe for a “sallet” made of red sage, sorrel, parsley, spinach, small lettuce leaves, salad burnet, endives, and chervil. Then layer with capers, currants, olives, boiled beetroot and dress with lemon juice, oil, and vinegar.

I will also be testing out Tobias Venner’s herb jelly recipe from 1620 this autumn. This suggests that “a conserve of rosemary and sage is to be often used by students (and)..doth greatly delight the brain”. This seems particularly appropriate for a Cambridge village.

Developing dishes and recreating historic recipes

For fish and meat dishes I am developing uses for the herbs I have so that the flavours complement.

Cooking with herbs
Salmon with lemon balm, lemon verbena, Vietnamese coriander and shredded lemon zest with mascarpone

When I am recreating recipes from my collection of 17th to 19th-century cookery books it is a pleasure to have them growing outside the back door. They also provide delights for our bees. At the moment, before pruning, I am using rosemary, lavender, hyssop and thyme flowers as pudding decorations and for making fools, jellies and biscuits.

A  historic dessert dish
Rhubarb fool with lemon balm – an 18th-century recipe

My interest in the scientific and culinary uses of herbs also lead to an appearance on ITV about problems getting to sleep. This was with presenter Sian Williams for the programme “Save Money Good Health” about the best ways to use herbs to do so – scientifically researched!

Sian Williams and Sue Save Money Good Health
Dr Sue Bailey with Sian Williams for ITV “Save Money Good Health” about how to use herbs and teas for a good nights sleep

My interest in the scientific and culinary uses of herbs also lead to a recent appearance on ITV about problems getting to sleep. This was with presenter Sian Williams for the programme “Save Money Good Health” about the best ways to use herbs to do so – scientifically researched!

I am collecting details of local traditional recipes and uses of herbs and would love to find out more from any local East Anglian foodies.

This post has been adapted from an article written for the Barton Gardeners newsletter.

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