In the 21st Century the taste and flavour of many savoury dishes are enhanced with a pleasant bouquet of aromatic of herbs. But it hasn’t always been this way.
It is believed that the use of herbs to flavour food can be traced back over 4000 years to the Neolithic and Iron Age period. During this period, natural growing plants were mainly vinegary, peppery or bitter to taste. We know this because many flowers and herbs used then can still be seen today. For example, Tansy still grows wild amongst the hedgerows. It is a pretty yellow flowered plant which has a bitter nutmeg/cinnamon taste. Also, Wall Pepper or Biting Stonecrop, and Lady’s Smock (a meadow flower) have peppery tastes.
The herbal revolution in Britain came with the Roman Invasion of 43AD. It is believed that the marching armies brought with them over 200 varieties of herbs from the Mediterranean. Fennel, sage (a spicy herb), dill, marjoram, lemon balm, mint, lavender, parsley, borage (mild cucumber flavour), thyme, rosemary, hyssop (a minty flavour used to make Chartreuse), and chervil, to name but a few.
Many hardy herbs such as dill and fennel fell along the wayside en-route and became neutralised. They can still be seen today growing wild and marking out the path taken by the soldiers along Britain’s coastlines and ancient roadways
During the 400 years or so of Roman occupation, these herbs were used in cooking by rich and poor alike and many are still in use today.
Around the 15th century, a complete Tudor kitchen garden would boast at least 40 different herbs. Many early soups were flavoured with parsley, sage, and also chickenweed and nettles which we now consider to be weeds. Salads were popular around the 15th and 16th century. Bistort purified the blood and was commonly used in salads, along with sorrel and mint. Meat dishes could be flavoured with borage, rosemary, thyme and parsley.
Horseradish, previously used as a medicine, began to be appreciated as a condiment in the early 17th century, and was served with meat, as well as fish.
During the late 16th and 17th centuries the discovery of the New World and America led to an increasing interest in new herbs. European, especially French influences began to be felt in Britain. It was around this time that bouquet garni is believed to have been adopted by English cooks. The wealthy always preferred Mediterranean herbs and French cookery was described as ‘sweet’ or ‘fine’.
The use of herbs declined during the 18th and 19th with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. New machinery and steam based industries offered work in the town communities. Country folk left their dwellings and kitchen gardens to go and live in town houses (which were back-to-back terraced), and find work within these new industries.
From the mid 19thcentury onwards, the only herbs commonly used were the famous four of ‘parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme’ as mentioned in the folksong ‘Scarborough Fair’.
Today, most houses have gardens and most communities are within easy reach of a garden centre or supermarket. It is here where we are spoilt for choice with the hundreds of varieties of aromatic plants available.
I prefer cooking with fresh herbs as they seem to give dishes a cleaner, more fragrant taste. Garden centres sell seedlings which can be planted outside. Pot herbs can be kept in the kitchen where they are handy and easy to use when cooking. Both types are ideal for window boxes.
For even more instant convenience and storage herbs are available dried in packets and jars; marinated in oils, or freshly frozen.
It seems we have come a long way from rummaging around amongst the hedgerows for our flavourings.