Cambridge cottage herbs and happy bees

posted in: Food writing and workshops | 0

What 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 four years ago that decided us on our 17th century cottage on our return to Cambridge. I became even more interested in local 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 garden and the hidden well.

Developing a herb collection

Much had changed, but we inherited a large bay bush, prostrate rosemary, fragrant pineapple mint, lemon balm, mounds of chives, thyme and purple sage.  We acquired and planted a cast iron pig trough with lemon verbena, chervil, hyssop, Thai coriander, sorrel and French tarragon. We planted the herbs in terracotta pots placed in gravel over soil. However the trough does not drain, so torrential rain means a quick baling out as this summer has proved.

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, so that the plants do not look too scalped, but are reinvigorated.

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 “Peyps At Table “  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 . This is then strewn with capers, currants, olives, lemon, boiled beetroot, oil and vinegar. I will 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 flavors complement.

Salmon with lemon balm, lemon verbena , Vietnamese coriander and shredded lemon zest


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.

Rhubarb fool with lemon balm – an 18th century recipe


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

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


I hope to collect more details of local traditional recipes and uses of herbs, explore my historic recipe books further and will post my experiments and recipes accordingly.

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

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