Showing posts with label Secret Garden Club. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Secret Garden Club. Show all posts

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Jar meal number 2

Salad in a jar a box

A couple of years ago I held a supper club in which every course was served in a jar. A couple of weeks ago I did the same thing with canning expert Gloria Nicol. 
Salads are particularly attractive  served in tall glasses or jars. I had a salad in a glass in an Israeli restaurant last year in which the salad was layered in a tall pint glass and then overturned onto your plate whereby the dressing gradually streamed from the bottom of the glass. More ideas and information on food in jars, water bath canning and pressure canning go here to our Secret Garden Club blog. 

I had this at a waterfront restaurant in Tel Aviv.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Canning for beginners

Picture by Gloria Nicol

Gloria Nicol of The Laundry will, along with myself, teach a workshop on pressure canning and hot water bath canning at The Secret Garden Club on March 3rd. Afterwards we will have a 'jar' meal.
I've been trying to promote canning and the canvolution, as they call it in America, for a few years now. Aside from the difficulty of buying a pressure canner in this country, it's still not well known in the UK.
Here are a few words from Gloria:
Learning how to can or bottle produce has totally changed my approach to how I source ingredients, store food and cook it. Making use of mainly homegrown or locally grown produce means naturally following the seasons and going with the flow. I feel it allows me to appreciate more living in the moment. I just love that.  
Bottling fruit was once a common activity in the UK, especially during wartimes until freezing food became the easier option. Once every household had a freezer, bottling was seen as to much of a faff, all but one of the companies in the UK making the necessary equipment died a death and only a handful of diehard allotmenteers and make do and menders managed to keep the craft alive. 
I too own a freezer and it is filled to busting with stuff I generally forget about. I have realised that if I freeze some homegrown veg, all the while it languishes in the freezer it is clocking up additional cost. It is an expense most of us are quite prepared to accept, but with utility bills rapidly on the rise, these considerations become more relevant. Those bargain beans will have cost a fair bit more by the time I use them, that’s if I remember to use them at all of course. Alternatively, the joy of jars on shelves means once bottled the food doesn’t cost a penny more or require defrosting either. Pop open the jar and it’s ready to go. It is surely time to revive this culinary craft and give a big tick for sustainability.  
But apart from all the practical reasons to love canning, the flavours are the biggest plus. I was brought up to think that preserved foods were second rate and nowhere near as tasty as fresh. What I have experienced first hand confounds these ideas. By following correct practice and keeping cooking times safe but to a minimum, you can capture the most intense and delicious flavours in a jar, capture the absolute essence of those ingredients.
Read the rest of her blog post including recipes here. 

Canning is environmentally friendly and tasty. Plus you can start on putting together a beautiful larder full of beautifully diverse ingredients.
Price of the event is £60 per person which includes the lesson, the meal and a goodie bag with a jar from Le Parfait.
This is a one off event so don't miss this chance to see myself and Gloria at work. Book here: Places are limited. March 3rd 2pm.
Apple syrup pic: Gloria Nicol

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Edible Flower Secret Garden Club in pictures

Christina ran the gardening workshop, teaching people which flowers are edible and how to grow them. She also demonstrated how to distill your own rose water and orange flower water, so the rain wasn't a problem, we took the workshops indoors. These are a few pictures from the edible flower supper we served our guests. 
Book for the next Secret Garden Club, 22nd July: How to eat salad 365 and still laugh like these women. 

Nyetimber English sparkling wine with rocket flowers

Making geranium and dill pasta which I served with creme fraiche and pesto. Gorgeous!
 Pasta hanging up to dry over the Aga
Guests learnt to crystallise rose petals. Christina is showing how to distill your own rosewater in the background.
Flower tea was served. 

Flowery French fancies
Rose water giant meringue with blueberry syrup and cream

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Summer dresses inspired by the garden

 Foxgloves in my garden
The wild strawberries are returning
The garden is blooming and, with the good weather (since replaced by wintery rain) women in London are turfing out the floral frock. You feel feminine, fresh, cheerful, even a little giddy, in a flowery dress, bare legs and open-toed sandals.
Nature has always influenced what we wear, and our secret garden is starting to infiltrate my wardrobe. But why stick to flowers? Just as with the garden, I like to mix it up, flowers and vegetables together, so I had a tomato dress made by my dressmaker Ruth Bennett (

This is my newest dress
This is my oldest dress, which I bought at a thrift shop in Los Angeles when I was 21. It dates from the 1930s. At the time I called it my 'bomb' dress, the one I'd like to be wearing if the bomb dropped. 
I recently gave a talk at the V & A Reading rooms where I was told I could choose two books as a gift. I chose this wonderful book detailing the history of the flowery frock during the 20th century from Horrockses to Ossie Clarke's collaboration with Celia Birtwell. Even during the rationing of the war, women wore florals. Perhaps when things are grim, you turn for inspiration to the timeless and natural bounty of this planet, to the garden.
Sometimes we prefer small intricate prints, other times we want large and blousy blooms. Flowers have symbolic meaning also, according to culture or nationality.
But most importantly the flowery dress can be a language with which the wearer can subtly announce how they are feeling that day. Today I might want to wear bright cartoony dahlias, but for the evening I may don a silky fabric adorned with dark red roses. On other perhaps quieter, more subdued days we will choose to dress covered with tiny muted sprigs Laura Ashley style.
I bought this Monet inspired 'nymphéa' flowery shirt in Bologna. I love the fabric covered buttons which remind me of Biba.
I love also to cook with flowers. Zia Mays and I are hosting a Secret Garden Club on the subject of edible flowers on the 24th of June. Book here for Zia's workshop on growing and identifying edible flowers and my edible flowery supper. 

Monday, 28 May 2012

Recipe: Cherokee blueberry honey cake

I always played the Indian in the game of Cowboys and Indians; in movies, I wanted those underdogs to win. I learnt the evocative names of the tribes: Cherokee, Apache, Comanche, Navajo, Cheyenne, are just a few. They represented romance, rebellion, resistance, dignity, tradition, purity of culture. I used to see a Western every week at Saturday Morning Pictures. Do kids still play Cowboys and Indians?
One summer I backpacked around New Mexico, hitching a ride to visit the Acoma pueblo 'mesa', a 365 foot flat-topped mountain arising from the dessert. A few Native Indians live there all year round but thousands of tourists visit each year. We looked around the traditional buildings, the people and the craft shops. In one shop a large friendly red-faced American tourist naively asked a tiny shrivelled Native Indian lady how old she was. Her reply was scathing "How dare you ask me how old I am. How dare you come here and insult me like this. You are talking down to me, this is typical of the white man, patronising us". The hapless tourist gabbled apologies. It was embarrassing and awkward. Her anger punctured our cheerful curiosity about their mesa village. We suddenly became aware that we were interlopers, that they didn't like us, that we were there on sufferance, so that they could make money to survive.
I'm still fascinated by Native Indian life; I'd love to spend some time in a teepee, naff though that might be nowadays. The architecture of the teepee is particularly feminine; many Native Indian tribes are matrilineal. The teepee field at Glastonbury always inspires me and I often go there during the festival to have some chai, listen to guitar by the fireside as dawn breaks.
For this Secret Garden Club I researched Native Indian food, starting with the planting trio 'Three sisters': corn, beans and squash. Foods they ate were mainly corn-based but also included tomatillos (husk tomatoes), berries (Sumac made 'Indian lemonade'), acorn flour and oil, game and fish, wild potato, Yucca, Squash and zuccini, watermelon, turkeys, maple syrup and pinon nuts.
To find out more about companion planting such as the Three Sisters go here.
Corn whisky (Jim Beam with coke)
Cornmeal tacos with marinated salmon, fresh and smoked
Cornbread in a skillet
Tomato and spring onion salsa
Succotash using @zia_mays home-grown borlotti beans
Roast squash with maple syrup and sumac
Cherokee blueberry honey cake
Here is the recipe for the Cherokee Blueberry Honey cake (sounds like the name of a pop stars progeny), it worked very well. The original recipe was with 'huckleberries' but those being thin on the ground in North-West London, I replaced them with blueberries. I was told by a guest that huckleberries* aren't actually very nice! 

120g butter, room temperature
120g caster sugar
200g honey
3 eggs, beaten
125ml whole milk
140g white flour
70g wholewheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon of salt
380g. fresh blueberries 

Preheat your oven to 175c or bake in the Aga baking oven, bottom shelf.
Cream the butter, sugar and honey together.
Beat in the eggs and milk.
Once well combined, sift in the white flour, wholewheat flour, baking powder and salt. Mix well.
Dust the fresh blueberries with a tablespoon of flour then fold them in gently with the batter. I reserved a cupful and sprinkled them on top.
I tipped the mixture into a lined loaf tin and baked for 45 minutes. In a conventional oven it may take an hour. 
Keep an eye to make sure the top isn't burning, if it is, cover it with foil. 
It's done when you test with a metal skewer and it comes out clean.
This cake was beautifully moist and not too sweet. 
Dust with icing sugar (I use a tea strainer as a mini sieve).

*Don't make the mistake I once did in an American cafe and order a 'dingleberry' pie. 

The next Secret Garden Club (workshop, supper and bouquet) is on the subject on edible flowers: how to grow them and which ones can you eat. Book here: £45

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Secret Garden Club in Country Living magazine

 One of my favourite magazines, Country Living UK, has done a piece on The Secret Garden Club. They have a blog here, covering anything from craft, to home decoration, recipes and gardening. For years I've lusted after the gorgeous houses (particularly kitchens) in their beautifully photographed spreads. I was thrilled also when artist Lucinda Rogers came to do some painting in the Secret Garden to illustrate the article. I'm a big fan of her work, her fluid but accurate style. She's done a series of ink drawings of restaurants.

Don't forget tomorrow is Secret Garden Club's Mediterranean Vegetable Day. I'll be cooking: expect Bloody Mary's with Rosemary, a Middle Eastern style ratatouille and chocolate aubergines. Zia_Mays will show how to grow those tricky Mediterranean vegetables in a British climate. Do come there are still places and it's only £45. Starts at 2pm.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Notes on Med Veg

Mediterranean vegetables are my favourites, to the point that I'm sad to be British. I'm sorry but cabbages and turnips simply can't compare with shiny purple aubergines, scarlet tomatoes, taut crimson peppers and aromatic chillies. Paired with basil, bay, thyme and oregano, it's impossible to create a dull tasting dish.
I've not had alot of success growing aubergines and peppers in the past and I'm hoping Zia Mays can enlighten both me and the workshop participants. My tomatoes have always worked a treat though. Is there anything better than a home grown tomato?
It's going to be fun for me to create a light supper; I haven't made ratatouille in a while and will once again struggle with the big ratatouille debate which rages over continents: add tomatoes or not? I think a ratatouille shouldn't be too sloppy.
I may make pepperonata, red peppers slowly braised in onion and garlic. Bread will be needed to mop up the slick juices.
Baba ghanoush, a recipe from my book. Not too much tahini is the secret here. And properly sear the skins of the aubergines to get that smoky smell.
Or maybe a melanzana parmigiana...this takes a long time and I'm generally forced to consume a bottle of red during the making. Don't mind me if I'm pissed when you arrive.
I think we should start with a Bloody Mary but with a twist perhaps as a soup or a jelly?
Chocolate covered aubergine slices and candied chilli peppers for dessert possibly?
Shopping advice for buying tomatoes:
Buy tomatoes that feel heavy in your hand.
Store them carefully, in fact do not put them in the fridge, their flavour turns mealy.
Don't worry about funny shapes, do worry about soft spots.
Smell them! Good tomatoes should have that earthy, acidic, greenish smell.

Workshop and supper on April 15th £45. Starts at 2pm.
Book here:

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Primroses at Crews hill

 Zia and I visited Crews Hill this morning to buy plants and garner inspiration. The last couple of days I've had Jim the Irish carpenter doing a bit more work in the garden; he finished off the last raised bed framing them with recycled wooden sleepers. He can't properly finish the work however as a ton, yes literally a ton, of rubble has been tipped into the corner of my garden by one of the characters who lives next door in the council flats. This guy is a hoarder and deposits his 'finds' in the local area, like a magpie. The council are dragging their feet about removing the rubble. So we wait.
I'm a big blousy girl and I think Zia is a little more classy than I. I've recently ordered clematis, which are a bit of a fetish with me, and everytime I go for the big garish blooms with Stupa like layers, extraordinary and surreal, whereas Zia veers towards tinier daintier flowers.
I got a kick out of these vibrant primroses this morning. There is something very 50s and suburban, a little bit municipal even, about these flowers in their Mad Men colours. I'd quite like to do a whole garden like that, in really 'bad taste'.
I also invested in some corms, a word I've only just learnt but it means tubers or roots. Again Dahlias, totally effing love them! I've got a hat that looks like a dahlia so I'm growing some in the same shade of Schiaparelli pink. 
I saw some triffid like carnivorous plants.
I bought a kumquat for £25 which I have to keep inside until the end of May. Groan. I loathe indoor plants. But if I want kumquats for my saumon en papillote dish then I must put up with it.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Secret Garden Club potato dinner

Chocolate Potato Cake with chocolate dipped potato crisp on top
(Sorry, had already drunk the cocktail by the time I photographed this.) But...this is Chase's Potato vodka. We did a taste test of good grain vodka and potato vodka; the latter was so much smoother.
Golden wonder, Orla, Salad Blue, Highland Burgundy, Mayan Gold, Pink Fir apple. Am I the only person that didn't know Golden Wonder crisps were named after the variety of potato?
Aligot and truffade on the Aga. 
You have to keep folding and stretching the aligot to get the right texture.  
You can't eat enough potatoes...
Sunday was dedicated to the humble spud. This new world vegetable has only been part of our diet for the last 400 years. I spent a few weeks living as a Tudor a decade ago, and it was extraordinary how much food that we regard as an ordinary part of our diet...tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate, tobacco were absent.
I made aligot, truffade, multi-coloured chips, a potato vodka cocktail and finally a chocolate potato cake topped with chocolate dipped crisps. The BBC came along to film, it will be broadcast next Saturday on the Breakfast news in a segment about Pop Up businesses. The crew couldn't stop eating the chocolate dipped crisps!
My next potato based dinner is on the 12th of May where I'll be using Jersey Royals book here:

Upcoming dates:

March 17th: Caribbean cookery with Guardian food writer Catherine Phipps who worked as a chef in the Caribbean. £40
Secret Garden Club: March 18th : Take up smoking! due to the popularity of the last smoking event, here's another workshop and smoked tea. £60
Book here:

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Menu for tomorrows potato Secret Garden Club

Sweet potato cocktail (if this sounds bizarre, remember that vodka is often made from potatoes)

Red, white and blue chips. (A diamond jubilee tribute in potato form)

Aligot (French potato dish from the Auvergne. With Tomme. Divinely stretchy and cheesy)

Truffade (served in a cast iron pan. Lovely crunchy bits at the bottom)

Chocolate Potato Cake

Still tickets left for tomorrow, book here:
£45 for workshop and meal.

The BBC are coming to film tomorrow too!

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

This Sunday, a potato workshop with aligot

This Sunday, Zia Mays will be giving a workshop on all the different kinds of potatoes you can grow: from earlies to lates, russets to purples and whites, in gardens or allotments or even on balconies, followed by a meal at The Underground Restaurant. I'll be cooking one of my favourite French potato dishes...aligot. 
Book here:

Aligot: in this Auvergne regional French potato dish the potatoes are not sautéed as in Truffade but mashed. It lines your stomach like a four-tog duvet against the winter cold.
Mashed potato doesn't really cover it as a description: although the potatoes are mashed, combined with a local cheese... a fresh 'Tomme'. You work the potato and other ingredients together until it's stretchy. It's known rather romantically in France as the 'ribbon of friendship'.
In Aubrac and Aurillac (where they have an annual street theatre festival) it's sold in the market place in huge cast iron frying pans or deep pots, lifting it again and again, displaying it's gaping trails of cheese...

Here is the recipe:

1 kilo of floury potatoes, peeled and cut into small chunks
2 crushed cloves of garlic, peeled
100g of butter
400g of fresh Tomme cheese, cut into small slices (leave it out of the fridge for at least two hours before using); up the proportion of cheese if you like it really stretchy!
200g of thick creme fraiche

Salt and Pepper to season

Boil the potatoes in salted water with the garlic cloves for 15 -20 minutes.  When cooked, take out the garlic cloves.
Put the potatoes through a ricer (better than a masher as it stops the potatoes becoming too glutinous).
Keep back a little of the cooking water to obtain the correct consistency. Aligot is all about texture, it really depends on the type of potatoes you use too. It must not be too liquid or too stiff.
Then progressively add the butter, creme fraiche, cheese over a simmering flame. You must whip the ingredients together with a wooden spoon energetically, working it back and forth to aerate the mixture.
You season and can add some more crushed garlic at the end.
My pictures don't really do justice to this dish, I should have shown the elastic quality of the cheese but only had one set of hands!

Hand carved wooden spoons by Terence McSweeney.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Herbs and medicinal plants

Sunday’s Secret Garden Club afternoon explored the world of herbs and medicinal plants. We looked at how herbs have been used both for culinary and remedial purposes, what herbs can be successfully grown, both indoors and outdoors, how to raise them, harvest them and store them. We also gave a brief historical overview of the use of herbs through the centuries and we were particularly lucky to have Natasha McEnroe, the director of the Florence Nightingale Museum, on hand to give a short talk on the contents of Miss Nightingale’s Medicine Chest, which contained the remedies, mainly herbal which she took to the Crimea with her and which now resides in the Florence Nightingale Museum itself.

The workshop was not intended to attempt any sort of diagnosis or prescription for herbal remedies – none of us are qualified to do this. It is always important to seek the advice of a trained professional before taking any kind of medicine and herbal remedies must be used in the correct way and the correct dose. An overdose (or ingestion where a remedy is meant to be used topically, for example) could be dangerous and/or toxic.

Herbs have been used both for culinary purposes and for the treatment of ailments for centuries. Writers describing the Hanging Gardens Of Babylon, which were supposed to have been constructed around 600BC, included thyme, coriander, saffron crocuses, anise, poppy, rosemary, and hemp among the plants they listed.

People have been reserving patches of ground to cultivate herbs for hundreds of years. In this country, the physic or infirmary garden was an important part of the grounds in a monastery. Monks not only cultivated fruit, vegetables and herbs for their own use, but often for the wider community as well. The monastery infirmary treated the sick from the villages nearby and remedies made from the physic garden were the main means of treatment.
Herbs grown for culinary and medicinal use in the mediaeval monasteries included cumin, fennel, comfrey, feverfew, yarrow, pimpernel, rosemary, sage, rue, lavender, rose, iris, mint, lovage and pennyroyal. You’d also find mint and wormwood in the kitchen garden
Recreations of monastic herb gardens can be found at

As long ago as 1652, Nicolas Culpeper, a herbalist who worked in London – and a radical who was way ahead of his time in many respects - wrote two books, The English Physician and The Complete Herbal, which documented the herbal medicine used at the time and was hugely influential.

Culpeper was a radical in many ways – he was accused of witchcraft during the English Civil War – one thing which shows the state of medicine at the time is that he was considered highly eccentric because he insisted on examining his patients instead of just examining their urine.

The herbs
I've documented the individual herbs in the Secret Garden in the Plant List page. At the moment, the garden contains:
  • Bay 
  • Dwarf comfrey 
  • Echinacea
  • Fennel  
  • French marjoram 
  • French tarragon
  • Golden thyme 
  • Japanese parsley 
  • Lavender
  • Lemon balm 
  • Mint
  • Moroccan mint 
  • Oregano, also Golden Oregano
  • Parsley, both flat-leaved and curly
  • Pineapple mint 
  • Rosemary, both Rosemary 'Gorzia' and 'Miss Jessopps Upright'

and also Aloe vera, which isn't, of course, a herb, but certainly counts as a medicinal plant.

Coriander, grown as microleaves
Coriander has a tendency to bolt, ie, set seed before it's produced much in the way of leaf. My solution to this problem was to grow it to harvest as microleaves.

You’ll have seen microleaves on your restaurant plate or in the supermarket.  Coriander is a good herb  to try this way, because you get all the flavour of the coriander even though you are harvesting it when the leaves are still very small.  Long before you get to the bolting stage, anyway.

The plants will be grown for just 4-6 weeks so you don’t want to waste a load of compost on a deep pot. I find using an ordinary seed tray works perfectly well. Make sure it has the drainage holes at the bottom.
Fill with compost, water it well and let it drain.

Firm it lightly, then sprinkle over your seeds. You can sow more thickly than you usually would, because you’re not trying to raise fully-grown plants. Cover the seeds lightly with soil. Then – if you're sowing early in the year - cover the seed tray with a plastic bag or its own lid (from April onwards, you won't need the protective covering). Put it on a sunny windowsill and wait for the seedlings to come up – from 3 days in spring and summertime to a week or 10 days if you sow earlier.

Once they’ve germinated remove the lid. The next day, check to see if they need any more water. If in doubt, don’t water – you are more likely to drown emerging seedlings than to starve them.

Start cutting when the leaves are substantial enough – when the plant is about an inch or two high. Don’t be tempted to let them grow on – the tray is too shallow to let the roots develop properly and you’ll get straggly plants which bolt.

I usually keep a couple of trays going at once to keep the supply going.

Growing basil
After a fair bit of experimentation, I’ve decided basil is best grown indoors in the UK. It’s not so much the climate as basil’s fatal attraction to aphids, or greenfly, when grown outdoors.

Basil is also one of those herbs where you want lovely big lush leaves – outdoors, basil always gets straggly very quickly.

So, it’s pots on the windowsill within arm’s length so that you can snip off leaves whenever you want. 

Basil likes lots of light. It’s very early to sow basil in January and it won’t really get going until the days get longer in March.  But you’ll still get a head start.

Fill your pot with  a good rich compost – multipurpose is fine – and firm it lightly. Water well and let it drain. Sprinkle the basil seeds over the compost, and just cover – very thinly – with soil. Put the pot on a sunny windowsill.

Seeds will germinate within a week – in about 3 days in high summer.

Let each plant grow until it has at least 4 leaves before cutting any and always leave each stalk with at least 2 true leaves to enable it to regrow after harvesting.

One of the questions I’m often asked is “Why not just grow basil from a pot bought at the supermarket?”
The answer is that supermarket pots of herbs are grown purely to produce a crop of leaves for a single occasion – the time that you buy it. The plant will have been raised under intense lights to grow as quickly as possible. It will not have been given time to put down a proper root system so the plants are essentially weak.

The soil it’s in is almost certainly sterilised: the last thing the supermarket wants is for you to find greenfly or other bugs in there. So there won’t be much in  the way of nutrients to sustain the plant after you get it home and starting cutting its leaves off – which will reduce the plant’s ability to photosynthesise.

The plant you raise from seed should keep going all summer. It will have good rich soil, it will have been properly watered, and a decent root system.

And finally, I’ve only ever found ordinary sweet basil in the shops, which is a shame, because there are wonderful varieties of basil which are really just as easy to grow.

Having said all that, I do find that Waitrose’s basil pots keep going longer than anyone else’s and I usually buy a Waitrose pot in February  and it should last until April when my own homegrown ones get going. Keep watering it well.

Vertical gardening
If you don’t have space to let your herbs spread out, why not let them grow upwards? I’m sure you’ve all seen amazing vertical gardens at Chelsea or Hampton Court Flower show – here’s a very small-scale domestic version, but it uses the same principle.

This is an effective way to grow microleaves or small plants – thyme, basil, parsley, coriander, chervil, for instance. Take an over-the-door storage hanger, for example, one with slanting pockets for documents, or shoes. Try to get a plasticised one – a plain cloth one will be too leaky and will look very unattractive.

The first thing to do is to make some drainage holes at the bottom of each pocket – this is very important because otherwise you will waterlog your plants. Next add a little soil into each – don’t overfill or you’ll spill. Then sow your seeds or insert your seedlings.

Finally, find a place to hang it. On an outside door might be the best to get the sun. Indoors, you’ll need somewhere facing a sunny window.
This isn’t a long-term herb garden, but it will provide you with fresh herbs of your choice for the best part of a season in a small space.

Harvesting - general guidelines
  • Harvest herbs by cutting little and often. Don’t cut the plant right back to a bare stem, or it won't recover.
  • Harvest before the herb flowers - the leaves will be less flavoursome after the plant has flowered.
  • Always cut the leaves rather than pulling at them – you may weaken the plant.
  • The best time of day to harvest herbs is the late morning – the dew will have dried off the leaves and the sun (hopefully there will be sun) will have warmed them enough to intensify the flavour of the volatile oils, but not enough to dry them out.
  • If your herbs do flower, let them go on to set seed, which you can then save for the next year. 

Saving seed
Having successfully raised your herb plants they will eventually set seed if you let them grow. Herbs like coriander, dill, fennel have seeds which are used in the kitchen as well as the leaf.

Even if you don’t eat them, you can save the seeds to grow next year. This is one way to ensure that over the generations you get seed which is perfectly adapted for your conditions.

Let the plant grow and flower, after which it will set seed. Cut the seedheads before they fall to the ground. You might want to put the whole seedhead in a paper bag and snip the stem to ensure no seed is wasted.

Next, remove the chaff – bits of stalk and seedcase. Put the seed in a jar and seal. Label it carefully.
Store seed somewhere cool, dark and dry.

There are excellent detailed instructions for saving seed from all sorts of plants, not just herbs at the Real Seed Company's site at

Storing herbs 
When fresh herbs are unobtainable, or not at their best, it's good to have some preserved for use at any time. There are a number of ways you can do this.
Some herbs dry better than others: oregano, tarragon, bay leaves are all good. Basil is useless, and I can’t really get on with dried parsley. Thankfully parsley freezes well.

To dry herbs, pick a big bunch on long stalks. Remove any brown or damaged leaves and check over for insects and mites. Wash and dry if necessary. Tie the stems together and wrap loosely in muslin or put them in large paper bag. Close the bag around the bottom of the stems and punch some air holes at the top of the bag.

Find somewhere warm, and well-ventilated without being draughty, where you can hang your herbs up. If you can’t hang them up, then lay them out singly with space around each stem on a tray. Under the rafters in the loft, an airing cupboard, or a cupboard under the stairs are both good. I dry most things over the cooker hood.

Leave the herbs until completely dry, then transfer to a jar. Try not to break up the leaves – they will retain their flavour better if you crumble them just before you use them. Seal tightly and store in a cool, dark, cupboard. Remember to label them properly: dried herbs do not look the same as their fresh counterparts. Use within a year or they will lose flavour and start to taste of dust. Ideally, use them within three months.

Some herbs freeze very well: parsley for instance, and basil is OK as well. You can either freeze the herbs in a bag, or in ice cube trays.

When you freeze herbs in a bag, you can keep them dry. Choose the best leaves or sprigs and lay them out in a single layer, not touching, on a tray. Place in the freezer and leave until frozen. Transfer to a freezer bag and seal. (This 2-stage freezing keeps the leaves separate in storage: if you put the leaves in the freezer bag all at once they will freeze together in a clump.)

To freeze in an ice cube, chop the herb finely, then squish into ice cube trays. Carefully fill the tray until the herbs are just covered. Freeze, then remove from the freezer and top up each cube with water. (Again this is a 2-stage process: when you initially freeze the chopped herbs in water they will float to the top and be partially exposed to the air. Adding the extra water layer on top ensures the herbs are completely sealed in ice.) Push the cubes out of the trays, transfer to a bag and replace in the freezer. 

Frozen herbs should be used within 3 months.

Oils, vinegars and butters
You can also make herb vinegars, which are fantastic for salad dressings, herb oils, or herb butter.

Herb vinegar is very simple – tarragon, fennel or rosemary make gorgeous vinegars. Tarragon vinegar makes the best Bearnaise sauce.

Wash and dry the leaves, then bruise them slightly. Put them in a sterilised jar, cover with your base vinegar (could be wine, or cider vinegar) and leave somewhere warm for 2-3 weeks, giving it a good shake every now and then.

Strain the vinegar through a fine sieve or muslin into another sterilised bottle. Seal and use when required.

Herb oil is a little more complicated because there is a small but real risk of botulism. Anything with any moisture content can contain Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium that causes botulism. It develops in anaerobic conditions, ie, where air is excluded, so moist herbs covered in oil could well be a breeding ground for the bacteria.

To make herb oil safely: use fresh herbs, infuse in the oil, refrigerate and use within a week. Or, dry the herbs thoroughly first, then add to the oil. More generally you can also eliminate the risk by adding acid – you’ll find a lot of commercially available garlic-in-oil uses garlic which has been preserved in vinegar first. 

Herb butters are delicious and deceptively simple to prepare. You can use them straightaway, or freeze them for up to six months. First, get your butter out of the fridge to soften. Chop about a tablespoon of your chosen herbs - chives, parsley, dill and tarragon are particularly good – for every 125g of butter. Mix in well and add a little lemon juice – about a teaspoon.

Chill the butter until it’s hard enough to be shaped. Then roll it into a cylinder and wrap in clingfilm. Place in the freezer. You can then slice off a disc every time you want some herb butter to add to your meat, a tureen of vegetables or your corn on the cob.

The Herb menu

MsMarmite here: I woke with a streaming cold with the urge for an Asian style hot spicy soup. The herbs I used here, coriander and mint were part of the herb growing class that Zia Mays gave. Lemongrass on the other hand, is apparently easier to grow than one might think.
The meal was fusion in style, I was flying around my kitchen trying different things.
We started with a hot gin, lavender honey and lemon juice toddy, perfect for the frosty January weather. While the others went outside for their tutorial from Florence Nightingale museum's Natasha MacEnroe and Zia Mays, I rolled and baked the lavash, a typical Persian flat bread. In the Middle East they have an appreciation of herbs to the point that they just serve a plate of unadorned different herbs including coriander, dill, parsley and coriander which you simply wrap inside the bread. 
Another herb 'by product' is fennel pollen, a fashionable ingredient amongst chefs presently. Instead of the classic blood orange and fennel salad, this time I dosed the thinly sliced orange discs with pomegranate syrup and fennel pollen. Very effective.
I had half a kilo of fresh ricotta in the fridge and mixed this with eggs and a little cream with torn up sage leaves, spooned into a muffin mould and baked for 15 to 20 minutes. They didn't last long at the table.
We finished with bay leaf and nutmeg icecream in a cornet. 
Guests were lovely, the January light dimmed as we chatted over food and the fire was lit. 
I'll leave Zia to describe the gardening 'arm' of our operation in the next post.
Hot sour coconut soup
Blood orange, pomegranate syrup and fennel pollen salad
Lavash with herbs
Poppy seed lavash
Sage and ricotta bakes

Friday, 6 January 2012

January: Culinary herbs and Medicinal Plants Workshop and Tea

Another Secret Garden Club: January 29th: Herbs and Medicinal plants. 
Herbs are easy and rewarding to grow, especially if you don't have much garden space. They don't need good soil. They will make the air fragrant as well as giving a lift to your cooking. They have health benefits too. We have known about medicinal plants for hundreds of years and we are in danger of forgetting their qualities.
£45 for the Sunday workshop and tea. Starts at 1.30pm
Book here:

As for the tea....some ideas include:

  • herbal cocktails
  • little herb 'sandwiches' like I've seen in Persian restaurants using fresh leaves and lavash
  • sage and butter pasta
  • all kinds of pesto: from the classic basil to wild garlic
  • coriander and lemon grass hot and sour soup

and for the sweets:

  • Bay leaf ice cream
  • Chocolate mint leaves
  • Using the sweet herbs such as basil in desserts...rhubarb and basil crumble.
  • Blood oranges with rosemary

and of course mint tea.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Secret Garden Club: shortest day garlic and onions

White Glogg
French Onion Soup
Garlic bread
Poireaux vinaigrette
Black Garlic chocolate cookies
Cheaty mince pies

During our shortest day 'All about alliums' gardening workshop taught by Zia Mays in the dim frosty light, I was inside preparing a garlic, leek and onion menu for my chilly guests. I took pity on them outside and from time to time, they were topped up with mugs of White Glogg to warm their hands and, of course, their insides. To find out more about planting onions, garlic, leeks please read this fascinating post on our Secret Garden Club blog. I've tried to plant onions and garlic before and never succeeded so this was a useful skill to learn. We also learnt about Walla Walla onions which are supposed to be so sweet you can eat them like an apple!

White Glogg Recipe:
1 bottle of white wine
1 bottle of apple juice
A few slugs of vodka.
2 Cloves
10 All spice berries
A stick or two of Mexican cinnamon
400g of sugar.
1 apple, cored and sliced.
Pale green sultanas.
(I also threw in a couple of rosehips, gathered in the autumn, to bump up the Vitamin C).

Put all of the ingredients into a large saucepan and bring to the boil then turn down to simmer. I normally keep my glogg on the Aga hot plate where it reduces and I keep topping it up with new alcohol everytime I have a new batch of guests.
The French onion soup recipe is in my book. Garlic bread, well I'm sure you all know how to do that. Don't you?

I was recently sent some black garlic cloves by a PR. These fermented cloves taste caramelised, almost sweet and balsamic. I thought they'd work well with chocolate as I was looking for an unusual onion, shallot or garlic dessert recipe for this 'tea'.

Black Garlic Chocolate cookies
220g unsalted butter
100g brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tablespoon of vanilla essence
325g flour
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 teaspoon of baking soda
A pinch of salt
50-75g of Macadamia nuts, chopped
12 cloves of Black garlic, finely chopped
350g of dark chocolate, cut up small or chocolate chips
75g of maple syrup

Beat together the butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla essence.
Sieve the flour, cinnamon, baking soda, salt into a bowl.
Add the nuts, garlic and chocolate to the flour then stir all of the ingredients together adding the maple syrup.
Put a tablespoon of mixture onto a silpat or silicone paper on a baking tray, spacing the cooking 2 inches apart.
Bake for 8 to 10 minutes at 190C. (Bottom shelf baking oven of the Aga).

Really cheaty mince pies.
I ran out of time and felt somehow obliged, it coming up to Christmas, to serve mince pies. Found a pack of feuilles de brick in the fridge (very similar to filo pastry which could be a replacement)  et voila! Fifteen minutes for a mince pie, very pretty to look at and light to eat.

1 pack of circular feuilles de brick.
1 jar of very good quality mincemeat.
a knob of butter
A few strands of home made candied peel
A few pine nuts or other nuts

Plop a little mince meat in the middle of the circle of the feuille de Brick.
Add butter, nuts, candied peel.
Tie together with kitchen twine.
Place all of them on a baking tray and bake at 200C for 15 minutes or so.
Take them out and cut off the twine.
Dust with icing sugar using a tea strainer.
Serve warm.
At the end of this I was so proud of myself, what a genius I am, what wonderful ideas I manage to come up with...etc etc...then a few days later, idly googling feuilles de brick, where to buy them in the UK, and to my disappointment, I saw Delia did exactly the same thing. But like four years ago. I swear to God I never saw her recipe.
 Guests were sent home with a pot of chives and some 'sets' of plantable garlic and shallots.