When a friend visited recently she came bearing a bunch of green leaves – in all honesty, I had no idea what they were.
It turned out to be lovage.
She’d grown the ornamental herb in her garden and it had sprouted furiously.
The leaves were big, lush and vibrant and the scantest of touches to them sent a waft of fragrance into the air – I was hooked.
I plunged the stems into water preserving them for days to come.
As we sat in the garden drinking wine my mind began racing with ideas on how to use it, even without having tasted it I knew I wanted to use every bit of it.
Only days before I’d taken to the internet to find out what lovage is and how it can be used.
The herb, which originated in western Asia and the Mediterranean, was feted by the ancient Greeks and Romans for its medicinal and culinary uses – it was thought to be a cure for all sort of ailments including sore throats, indigestion and rheumatism.
In medieval times, travellers would tuck the leaves into their shoes because of their antiseptic properties.
It may not be a shock to hear that it was also believed to be an aphrodisiac (it used to be called love parsley).
However, in recent years it’s rather fallen out of fashion with gardeners and cooks alike.
Its stems, leaves and seeds can all be used in the kitchen – it can even be used to make an alcoholic cordial to drink with brandy (I must request more!).
Leaves can be tossed into salads, soups and stews or used to stuff fish and chicken. You can cook the roots as a vegetable and candy the stalks. Dry the leaves and you can make a tea. Preserve the seeds and use them to flavour biscuits and bread.
Why aren’t we all growing it in our allotments and gardens?
As I took to the kitchen to cook with it (not knowing yet what to make) I pulled a leaf from the stem and began chewing on it.
Now, I don’t ever recall having tasted lovage before but it was at once familiar and intriguing.
There were notes of celery, recalling wintery soups and stews, as well as hints of aniseed not too dissimilar to aged basil.
It seemed to throw me back to days spent in my grandmother’s house when the scent of her roast dinners would send me into a state of bliss even before the food had passed my hungry lips. (Only once since her death, 17 years ago, have I smelt a similar smell and when I did, I stopped in my tracks and held on to it for as long as I could, knowing it may never appear again).
The lovage had a sense of nostalgia, an old fashioned taste, and one that I knew would immediately divide people who were tasting it for the first time.
I loved it, or so I thought.
Straight away I knew it would pair wonderfully with beef, as a rack on which to house a joint. Or as a bed fellow for creamy potato, chicken, walnut or eggs.
The proof would be in the cooking.
(Essentially you can use it in anything that you might otherwise call on celery for – lovage and celery share the same pair of compounds that give them both their celery flavour).
I stayed safe and opted for a potato and lovage soup.
I’ll be honest, as the recipe unfurled I began to doubt the lovage, it has such a strong flavour I thought it would over power the creamy and subtle potato. As I chopped the leaves the scent was heady and often nauseating.
Would I actually enjoy this I wondered?
In a flash the soup was made and I left it to settle overnight. Next day I braved the bowl of steaming green liquid in front of me.
It was soothing and comforting with every mouthful, it felt familiar and nourishing. Instead of overpowering the potato it seemed to enhance its flavour.
Lovage will find a welcome home in the garden next year and will be diligently used throughout its season for reasons I just cannot put into words.
In the meantime we will dine on potato and lovage soup from the freezer this winter.
I urge you to give this old English herb a go…
Potato and lovage soup
- 1 onion diced
- 2 knobs butter
- 1 kg potatoes peeled and diced
- 800 ml chicken or vegetable stock
- 500 ml semi skimmed milk
- 6 stalks lovage leaves only, chopped
- salt and pepper to taste
Take a large saucepan and melt the butter before adding the onion, cooking until soft and transparent.
Add the diced potato and cook for another ten minutes.
Add the stock and the milk and bring to a gentle simmer, cooking until the potatoes are soft.
Add the chopped lovage leaves and remove from the heat.
Using a hand blender, puree the soup. Add more stock or water if you feel the soup is too thick.
Place the saucepan back on the heat and season to taste.