My garden awaits the arrival of the landscaper, whose bags of gravel and pots of herbs will transform my thistle-ridden rectangle into the fragrant urban sanctuary Monty Don and I hatched some weeks ago.
I know exactly who I want to do it, but they are stuck on an earlier project and I must form an orderly queue. Yes, well, Christmas is coming, too, and I know very well there will be much mud and tears before so much as a sprig of thyme gets planted. I can dream about the roses that will climb the trellis, and if I screw my eyes tightly I can almost see the hornbeam hedges that will divide my little patch into 'rooms'. But even in this most sodden of summers, I have missed being able to walk out in the evening and pick the herbs to go in the day's salad. I long for my old herb patch with its tangle of lovage, purple sage and bindweed.
The first summer for years I find myself without my rampant bushes of lemon verbena (they are as unstoppable as lovage when they get going) is also the summer that I find a lovely recipe for Verbena Tea in the new River Cafe Green (Ebury, £30). This book has barely left my kitchen all summer, yet I would prefer to have picked the oregano, mint and thyme that season its dazzling vegetable recipes from my own patch rather than use spindle-stemmed sprigs from a supermarket pack. I would much rather do battle with the slugs for basil that has seen real sun than pinch a few limp-wristed leaves from one of those good-looking but ultimately toothless potted plants from Sainsbury's. I want herbs that have felt the rays of sun and that have grown in real earth.
The sun is the crux of it all. Brush against a basil bush on holiday in Italy, or crush a tight bunch of thyme underfoot in Greece, and the scent wafts up into the air, its heady oils sticking to your clothes, your hands. Now sniff the little bouquet you have just bought in Tesco, and you get the message. Herbs are only really at their best when they have seen the glare of the sun. Have you ever snapped a twig of rosemary in a dry and sunny garden around lunchtime? That, and the smoke from a lamb chop on the grill, is as good as summer gets. While evidence points to getting the most flavour from herbs picked in early morning or evening, they seem infinitely more fragrant when their leaves are still warm from the sun.
A herb garden, such as the one at Chelsea Physic Garden or the delightful Iden Croft Herbs near Staplehurst in Kent, is pure delight at the height of summer and it is only the thought of disturbing the bees that stops me from touching everything, releasing the essential oils that run through the leaves and stems as I do so. Yet it was under the spiffing new tent at this year's Chelsea Flower Show that I saw the most show-stopping herb garden I have seen in years. I may have been a grateful guest of those nice people at Laurent Perrier (and whose champagne I, of course, drink in preference to any other, and can I come again next year, please?), but it was the simpler pleasure of Highdown Nursery's herb patch (01273 492 976) that was worth suffering the rain and smell of beefburgers for. The star of their show was white borage, which I must say I never knew existed till then. Whereas there are those who would happily kill anyone thoughtless enough to actually want to touch the plants on their stall, this display almost begged us to. I wanted to take it, leaf, stem and root, back to my kitchen and scatter its magic over everything in sight. Once you start cooking with herbs, it is difficult not to get a touch carried away.
Much of what we use herbs for is strewn throughout culinary history: rosemary with lamb, basil with tomatoes, etc. Such pairings are not news. But I have some ideas of my own that I never tire of. Mint with strawberries and passion fruit, for instance, or broad beans and (a little) sage. Then there is the basil I tear up and scatter over peas with a drizzle of olive oil, the bay leaves with which I infuse my custard, and the lemon balm I rub into lamb chops with salt and garlic before they hit the grill.
I must tell you, too, about my habit of adding handfuls of big, peppery basil leaves and the juice of half a lemon to a pan of frying mushrooms (the smell is just sensational) and put in a word for the sage that I add, albeit gingerly, to my black pudding. I should also mention how nice basil is with raspberries. If you don't believe me, then wrap a couple of dark, velvety berries up in a leaf and crush it slowly on your tongue.
Herbed cream cheese
I know this sounds like one of those instant wonders from the back of a packet of Philly, but it is slightly more than that. If you take a bland cream cheese, such as a tub of mascarpone, and sharpen it with live yogurt and mix it with some freshly chopped herbs, you will have something worth making a few rounds of hot toast for. The recipe improves no end if you have time to leave the mixture overnight so that its flavour deepens and its texture stiffens up to something you can spread. It is also rather useful to serve alongside grilled meat. Use whichever herbs take your fancy.
500ml live yogurt
1 or 2 small cloves of young garlic
6 tbsps of fresh herb leaves, finely chopped
Scoop the mascarpone into a mixing bowl and gently beat in the yogurt. Peel the garlic and crush it to a slush with a little salt, then incorporate it into the yogurt and cheese with the herbs.
Line a small colander or sieve (or a yogurt pot which you have pierced with holes) with muslin or a new J cloth - it really must be a new one, though you should wet it first to make it more pliable.
Pile the herb cheese into the lined container and set it to drain over a bowl. If you can, leave it overnight in the fridge, though I must say I have left it for only a couple of hours before now, and
it has firmed up nicely.
Once the cheese and yogurt mixture has thickened to the point where you can spread it, discard the liquid that has seeped out into the
bowl and unmould the herbed cheese. Serve it
with hot toast.
Chicken with vermouth, tarragon and cream
If I can steer myself away from the grill at this time of year, then it will be to a simple chicken sauté such as this one with tarragon and cream. The amount of tarragon you use is up to you, but you should start with a bunch of about 10 sprigs, adding a few more before the end of cooking. Some green beans and rice would be good here, too. Serves 4
8 chicken pieces on the bone, preferably thighs
a wine glass of dry vermouth
2 tbsps tarragon vinegar
the leaves from a small bunch of tarragon
300ml double cream
a squeeze of lemon juice
Season the chicken pieces with a little salt and some ground black pepper, then melt the butter in a large, shallow pan over a moderate heat. Lightly brown the chicken in the butter, taking care that the butter does not burn. If it does, then you need to wipe out the pan and start again with some fresh butter. Remove the chicken, tip off and discard most of the butter and put the pan back on the heat.
Pour the vermouth and the vinegar into the pan, and as the steam rises, scrape away at the sticky deposits in the pan with a wooden spoon, letting them dissolve into the wine.
Once the vermouth has reduced for a minute or so, bubbling away by about a third, add the tarragon leaves and the cream and stir them into the wine. Return the chicken and its escaped juices to the pan, partially cover with a lid and set the heat quite low, so that the sauce bubbles gently around the chicken. Let it simmer like this for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring from time to time and checking that the cream does not thicken too much or stick to the bottom of the pan. If the cream looks in danger of becoming too thick - you want it to have the texture of a light cream sauce - then add
a little more vermouth.
Check that the chicken is cooked - its juices should run clear, not pink, when the flesh is pierced with a skewer at its deepest point. Season with
salt, a little black pepper, and a squeeze or two of lemon juice to sharpen and lift, or another dash of tarragon vinegar.
Raspberry and lemon verbena fool
a small handful of lemon verbena leaves
2 tbsps caster sugar
200ml whipping cream
Mash the verbena with the sugar, using a pestle and mortar. Crush the raspberries with a fork, then stir them into the herb sugar. Gently whip the cream until thick - though not so thick that it won't fall easily from the whisk - then fold it into the fruit. Pile into glasses and leave to chill for half an hour before serving.