This summer I toured the Cotswolds, and, researching the area I discovered that the renowned herb garden of broadcaster, Judith Hann, was only a few minutes down the road. I’ve devoured her seminal work, Herbs: Delicious Recipes and Growing Tips to Transform Your Food and found it invaluable, and her cookery courses have earned many glowing reviews over the years. Now I had a real yearning to meet her and find out more about how she came to create her oasis of fragrant plants.
She very generously agreed to answer all my questions.
SD: I’m afraid I hadn’t realised that you were a science broadcaster and writer as well as a herb specialist – Tomorrow’s World! – that used to be one of my favourite programmes. Many of the ideas presented in Tomorrow’s World appeared to be weird, wacky…almost unbelievable. Were there any which you’ve been surprised about, which have really caught on?
JH: Ah, yes, Tomorrow’s World – I remember we were talking about CDs long before they were introduced, when everyone was still using vinyl and couldn’t imagine anything else.
In the 70s when computer costs were in the hundreds of thousands I met some scientists who already had ‘ideas’ about voice recognition etc (but these advances were not yet developed at that time). In those days it was unbelievable – everyone said this can’t be happening.
In terms of food, in those days there were no government guidelines, no general information about salt or fat. We ran a report on someone who had devised a healthy diet – I’ve never had such a full post bag.
SD: To what extent/how does your scientific background inform your approach to gardening?
JH: Because of my scientific background it’s very important to me to consider the soil carefully – its PH, and its texture. I’m so lucky here in the Cotswolds – I have alkaline, stony, free-draining soil which is a very very good environment for herbs. Some herbs need richer soil, some more sun, they each need to be put in the optimum spot.
That’s the advice I would give to a novice urban gardener with just a small balcony or roof terrace – take great care to put the plants where they thrive best. Thyme, sage, hissop and marjoram all need sun; whereas parsley, sorrel, chervil and sweet cicely all need shade. You can grow herbs in pots, but in the end it’s much easier in the ground as you don’t need to water them.
“That’s the advice I would give to a novice urban gardener with just a small balcony or roof terrace – take great care to put the plants where they thrive best.”
SD: Is there a chef you have worked with who had a particularly original approach to using herbs? Who was it, and why was his/her approach special?
JH: I’ve always been interested in nutrition and food, and I started writing about both when I was working as a newspaper journalist, before I went into broadcasting. Then I did a series of eight half-hour programmes called The Taste of Health. We asked a number of famous chefs and food writers – the series included Raymond Blanc, Antonio Carluccio, and Claudia Roden – to try to cook without all the usual less healthy ingredients….butter, cream and so on.
It was while I was making this series that I realised just how dramatically herbs could transform what you were cooking. These professional chefs had access to herbs such as chervil, sorrel and lovage, but in those days herbs on offer to the general public were very limited – they still are, in fact.
I realised that if I was going to use them too I would have to grow them myself. I started experimenting with lovage as a result of watching Raymond Blanc – he was very creative with that particular herb.
“I started experimenting with lovage as a result of watching Raymond Blanc – he was very creative with that particular herb.”
And Antonio Carluccio also had a good feel for herbs. I remember him saying to me, “For maximum flavour, you need only the minimum of ingredients”, and he was right. Now, whenever I see a recipe with a long list of ingredients I always think it won’t really work.
But take, for example, a dish of sliced courgettes, grilled with a little oil and salt, and served with feta, mint and black pepper – it’s so simple, but it’s sublime.
Then I did a series on aging called Hann at 40 – all about how to reduce the effects of aging, and I wrote a couple of books on the subject. I found out about a scientist who fed a healthy diet to mice, and then, having seen that they lived longer, put himself on the same diet (he’s only just died, at a ripe old age). I began to realise that herbs could be very useful in slowing the aging process. I’ve worked with the Royal Society, training a professor at the University of East Anglia who was researching into the considerable anti-oxidant properties of red berries – raspberries, red currents etc. And since then I’ve been reading about an American couple whose research shows that herbs contain even greater amounts of anti-oxidents – it’s very new, and their report is not available to the public, but I’ll definitely be following that up.
“I found out about a scientist who fed a healthy diet to mice, and then, having seen that they lived longer, put himself on the same diet.”
SD: Which herbs would you say have the most potential for improving health? How and why?
JH: From a scientific point of view I would say probably the healthiest herbs are those with very fleshy leaves – broadly speaking the more cells they have the more anti-oxidants they will contain. And, of course, you need to eat them as fresh as possible – only cut them at the last minute.
SD: How are our attitudes to health changing? On the one hand we are plagued by obesity. On another faddy diets (kale!) and misdiagnosed diets are becoming the fashion. But there is also a genuine move to a healthier, more balanced approach to eating. Is your view of the future overall optimistic or pessimistic? Why?
JH: In terms of the future I can only see the problem of obesity getting worse, and leading to more diabetes, cancer, heart problems and so on. On the other hand people are becoming very particular – on a recent course I had a vegan, a vegetarian, a lactose-intolerant and a wheat-intolerant, but these days many people are misdiagnosed and food obsessions are all a lot of nonsense.
SD: What got you interested in herbs in the beginning, and why did you decide to move to the Cotswolds?
JH: We had to live in west London, near Broadcasting House [John Exelby, Judith’s husband was also in broadcasting – he was co-founder of BBC World Service TV News] for 25 years and I only had a small garden there with very sick soil.
We fell in love with the Cotswolds and decided to retire early. We bought what was classed as a 40 acre farm. Of these 40 acres, six areas are given over to the garden – including a rose garden, the white garden, a sunken garden, a lake, and a herbaceous garden etc – the herb garden itself is not that large. It is in a walled area ( the old pig yard) – precise size unknown/ unmeasured ( but quite large!!) currently I’m growing about 150 different types of herbs. It’s a very big amount of land for herbs and it keeps me busy.
When I was living in London I would produce about a book a year. Over the last 20 years of being here I’ve only had time to produce just one – Herbs: Delicious Recipes and Growing Tips to Transform Your Food, which was published last year.
SD: Were you looking specifically for somewhere to grow herbs, and the pig yard was perfect, or was the pig yard there first, and you spotted it was perfect for herbs?
JH: I was looking specifically for somewhere to grow herbs, and the pig yard was perfect. I needed the herbs to be near the house. It has a lot of walled areas just the right size for all my needs…a little Cotswold stone area became the potting shed, and there were walls everywhere so it was sheltered. It was also big enough for me to include a pond in the plan – a habitat for useful slug-eating frogs.
It was also big enough for me to allocate beds for all kinds of specialist uses. I have a whole bed dedicated to different types of parsley for example. And there is a pudding bed – that contains all kinds of edible flowers – violets, primroses, sweet rocket…and of course, sweet cicely.
One specialist bed is dedicated to edible flowers.
SD: Sweet cicely? I don’t think I’ve heard of that.
JH: Sweet cicely is a natural sweetener, an excellent healthy alternative to sugar. It’s a good counterpoint to the sourness of rhubarb. But the green seeds also have a use. They have an aniseedy taste – excellent in shortbread, or in tarte Tatin.
SD: I notice that you are pretty keen on rose petals….but I find them a bit too perfumed – what am I doing wrong (aside from maybe using too many? Maybe not dry enough? Wrong use?). Could you give some guidance?
JH: The Apothecary Rose is the best to use for culinary purposes. I use that to make rose petal jam, which I add to all kinds of things to give them a Moroccan flavour. I also add rose-scented geranium leaves to my almond cake.
“I add rose petal jam to all kinds of things to give them a Moroccan flavour. I also add rose-scented geranium leaves to my almond cake.”
SD: How do you use sage?
JH: I’ve also got a collection of different sages. I have common sage, of course, and broadleaf which has leaves about six times the size of the normal sage which are perfect for saltimbocca – each leaf will envelope the piece of veal.
I have purple and white sage which taste very much the same as the common sage, but which are very decorative.
And I enjoy the half hardy varieties: the pineapple, blackcurrant and tangerine ones all really have a taste of those fruits, and their flowers are also very attractive. The RHS team visited my garden this summer and they had the idea of growing pots of these for a fundraising event – it would be a kind of interactive quiz for children who would have to guess the fruit that the sage tasted of.
You can make pesto with sage – when we try pestos made with different herbs, the one made with sage is often the most popular. [Follow this link for a post on how to make pesto.]
SD: I’ve just been travelling through Portugal, and the herb everyone was talking about there was purslane – what is your view on this latest fashion?
JH: It won’t ever compete with the principal herbs. I do grow it. It can be added to salads, mainly for its texture. The leaves are thick with a lot of texture, they’re filled with water.
SD: Do you have a favourite herb (I know it’s hard out of 150!)?
JH: I have four favourites (not to do down rosemary, thyme and basil – but these are, after all, easily available everywhere): sorrel, oregano, lovage and chervil.
SD: I’ve only ever succeeded in growing sorrel which is unbearably bitter.
JD: I don’t know what you are doing wrong! Yes, sorrel has a lovely lemony, acidy taste. It’s supposed to be a bit sour.
One of the most popular dishes on my courses is sorrel added to an omelette – sorrel’s sharpness is perfect with the soft eggs.
Another recipe which works well is a sorrel and smoked salmon tart….yes, and sorrel is also very successful used raw, added to new potatoes, with capers, butter and lemon zest.
Sorrel is really worth cultivating because it keeps going throughout the year – there are three types in addition to the wild variety.
Oregano is a herb which could be used a lot more – it’s one of the best herbs with which to make a tapenade – with the fresh leaves. But it also dries very well.
Lovage has a terrific spicy, celery taste. It makes an excellent soup. Or you can add it, along with onion and garlic, to main crop potatoes. You can make lovage cheese, by adding it together with some garlic to soft goats’ cheese. You can make a syrup with it and spoon it over nectarines.
And, of course, you can make excellent gin with it!
Chervil is a bit like tarragon only much, much better. It’s got beautiful feathery leaves. You can add it to a béarnaise sauce, snip over an avocado, add to Jerusalem artichokes, and it goes brilliantly in a cauliflower soup.
SD: Any final words on herbs in general?
JH: Herbs are always there, whereas vegetables are seasonal.They’re so simple, you don’t need to water them.
Growing them is easy.
And they last. The perennial plants I have – sages, hissops, marjoram and oregano – have been with me since I first planted the garden 20 years ago – they’re the same plants.
Judith then very kindly gave me a couple of her favourite recipes.
Recipe for sorrel and salmon fishcakes
Most of the people I cook for regularly like fishcakes and I experiment with several fish and herb combinations. This recipe is a family favourite and I think the richness of salmon is improved by adding the sharp, lemon taste of the sorrel.
Preparation: 30 mins, plus chilling
Cooking : 30 mins
- 900g/2lb floury potatoes
- 750g/1lb 10oz salmon steaks
- 600ml/21fl oz/2½ cups fish stock
- 250g/9oz sorrel, leaves picked and finely chopped
- a little plain/all-purpose flour, for dusting
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 140g/5oz/2½ cups brown breadcrumbs
- 3 tbsp olive oil, for frying
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- crisp mixed salad herbs including raw sorrel, to serve
- Cook the potatoes in boiling water until tender, which will take about
20 minutes. Drain and mash.
- Meanwhile, put the salmon steaks in a saucepan, add the stock and simmer for 12 minutes until the fish flakes easily when tested with a fork. Leave to cool, then break into small flakes.
- Warm the prepared sorrel in a large pan over a medium heat for 1 minute to soften.
- Mix the salmon, potatoes and sorrel together and season with salt and pepper. Shape into fish cakes of the size you like.
- Cover with cling film/ plastic wrap and chill for 20 minutes. Dip each fishcake into a little flour, then into the beaten eggs and then press the breadcrumbs on well.
- Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the fish cakes over a medium heat for 5 minutes each side until piping hot throughout and crisp on outside.
- Serve with a crisp mixed salad made of salad herbs, including raw sorrel.
Recipe for Salami and Herb Cheese Rolls
These rolls are delicious – small, tasty and herby. But the herb cheese alone, decorated with a sprig of the herb, is also a fine addition to a cheeseboard.
- 250g/9oz/heaped 1 cup soft cream cheese
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- 1 handful of lovage, chervil, dill or .handful of winter savory (as it has a strong flavour)
- freshly ground black pepper
- 20 salami slices
- Mix the cream cheese, garlic, herbs and seasoning well in a blender.
- Take a slice of salami, put 2 teaspoons of herbed cheese along the middle and roll up.
- Repeat with the other slices.