I have lost count of the herb plants I have killed over the years. The oregano I needed for the pizza, the rosemary without which chargrilled lamb seems incomplete, dill for baked salmon, lovage, salad burnett, summer savory, winter savory, coriander, thyme and more lavenders (heavenly in panna cotta) than I care to admit to. How anyone could manage to kill a lovage plant - the bully of the herb bed but a nice addition to celery soup - is quite beyond me.
My heavily manured soil is simply too rich. The most fragrant, useful kitchen herbs thrive on sandy or gravely land. I have wriggled round this by planting them in lighter, gravel soil in big terracotta pots. The thymes and mints do well brought up this way and end up in cucumber salads and curries all summer long.
Those that grow like topsy in my humus-saturated plot are tarragon, bay, sage, chives, borage, lemon verbena and fennel. Yet summer cooking would be unthinkable without the scent of singeing thyme on the grill, the aniseed whiff of chervil (a nice touch in a bean salad) and the lavender you fancy adding to a dish of poached apricots.
This week saw the arrival of another batch of young hopefuls to my garden. The pots for thyme and rosemary are set up outside the kitchen door so they get full sun and are to hand even when it rains. The youngest stems have a sweet subtlety this early in the season, and I use unruly bits that need trimming as a stuffing for mild-flavoured fish such as sea trout and for snipping into an omelette or frittata. Early-season herbs, picked while their leaves are tender and gentle, will work well with any egg dish. I sometimes fold tarragon and young thyme leaves into a cheese souffle.
The other use for young herbs is to stir them into a mixture made from half thick yogurt and half fromage frais. I'm thinking of thyme, tarragon, chervil, coriander, sorrel and parsley. The idea is to rip off hunks of bread, then slather them with the herb-speckled cheese. If you chop up a gherkin and add a mean sprinkling of tiny capers, you will end up with something worth baking a loaf of bread for.
Before I had a garden I grew herbs in pots on the kitchen windowsill: that way you have more control over their soil and wellbeing than when they are put out into the big wide world to fend for themselves. But then I expect I killed more than a few of those, too.
Baked sea trout with spring herbs
Wrapping fish in foil or kitchen parchment seals in moisture, so it steams as much as it bakes. Play about with dill, fennel, chervil, tarragon, young thyme, rosemary and parsley. Lovage is a brute of a herb. A leaf or two is enough. Serves 4 or more.
1 medium sea trout, about 2kg
½ a small head of fennel and its fronds
a few sprigs of parsley
a few sprigs of young thyme
a thick slice of softened butter, about 30g
a few tbsp white vermouth such as Noilly Prat
new potatoes and steamed samphire
Set the oven at 220C/gas mark 7. Rinse the fish, making certain that it has been thoroughly cleaned and gutted. Lay it flat on a large piece of kitchen foil and season it inside and out with salt.
Thinly slice the fennel bulb (almost paper thin) then put it in the bowl with a tbsp or two of the chopped fronds. Pull a dozen or more parsley leaves from their stalks, roughly chop them, then add them to the fennel with a few sprigs of young thyme, the butter, a grinding of black pepper and a little salt and the vermouth. Mash everything together as best you can, then tuck it inside the fish.
Bring the sides of the foil or paper up, and seal the edges by crushing them together tightly. It should be loose but relatively airtight.
Bake for 35-40 minutes. Switch the oven off, but leave the fish in for 10 minutes, then take it out. Remove and discard the head and tail and gently scrape off the skin. Cut into large pieces, slide them off the bone and serve on a bed of buttered samphire or spinach with new potatoes on the side.
a little soft butter
Pick over the samphire, discarding woody ends. Plunge into boiling, unsalted water and cook for three or four minutes till bright and tender. Drain, and toss in the butter.
Broad bean and herb frittata
A nonstick pan is pretty essential, unless you have an omelette pan or small frying pan that has developed a much-used patina. Broad beans are not a necessity: very good too are fresh peas, spinach lightly steamed and chopped, or asparagus. Serves 2-3 with salad.
a large handful of shelled broad beans
8 spring onions
a thick slice of butter, about 40g ...#8594;
2 heaped tbsp tarragon leaves
2 tbsp flat-leaf parsley
a heaped tbsp of dill fronds
4 large eggs
50g grated Parmesan
Put a small pan of deep water on to boil, salt it lightly, and add the beans as it comes to the boil. Let them cook till tender, a matter of 5 minutes or so if they are small, then drain them in a colander. Unless the broad beans are very immature, you will probably want to pop them from their grey skins. It's a 5-minute job, but rewarding enough.
Finely slice the spring onions and cook them in most of the melted butter in a metal-handled omelette or small frying pan, about 20cm in diameter. Let them soften but not colour. Roughly chop the herbs.
Get an overhead grill hot. Break the eggs into a bowl, and add the Parmesan, sea salt and black pepper and then the softened onions, chopped herbs and cooked broad beans. Melt the remaining butter in the pan over a low to moderate heat, pour in the frittata mixture and leave, without stirring, until the bottom is pale gold. (Lift it carefully with a palette knife to check its progress.)
Put the frittata under the grill to cook the top; after a few minutes it will rise slightly and a thin green-speckled crust will appear. Lift the frittata on to a warm plate and serve.