Vicarious Herb Gardening

I am lucky enough to have a large garden — not the one in the picture above, alas — which, mostly, I shamefully neglect in favour of reading and writing. Still, it is there and I am very fond of it, and despite the terrible drought that we are in the midst of, it more or less flourishes. I took the two books pictured below from the library with the intention of growing more herbs in my garden, especially some of the obscure ones I find in Elizabethan recipes, such as lovage and borage — but as the drought worsened I thought better of it, and decided to read aspirationally instead, planning for a future when there is once again rain.


Charles W. G. Smith’s The Beginner’s Guide to Edible Herbs is a slender paperback featuring 26 different herbs; this is a conveniently sized book I can imagine actually carrying outside with me for reference while planning a garden. The herbs are listed in alphabetical order, with a small photograph of each one — I would not have minded more, as it is good to see the plants in different stages, some change a great deal when they flower or go to seed. Smith gives a brief history of every herb, advice on planting, harvesting, and preservation, and some suggested culinary and medicinal uses. Between each of the individual entries are recipes, grouped by method, ranging from standards such as baking and sauces to more unusual ideas such as making herbal salts and sugars. I was a little frustrated that these in-between sections are not listed in the Table of Contents, but the individual recipes are all included in the index, so it is possible to find a specific item without too much difficulty — and given the slimness of the book, flipping through looking for a particular section is not overly onerous.

Growing & Using Herbs & Spices by Don Burke is a much weightier book, quite literally; it is in the heavy coffee-table style, with full page photographs carefully styled and shot. Like Smith’s book, the entries are alphabetised, with information on how to grow, harvest, and use the various herbs and spices — although Burke is very clear when there is not scientific support for medicinal claims. Many of the entries include a recipe as well, although not all; a pity, as while I do not need more uses for common herbs such as basil, I would have loved to see recipes for nettle or marigold. Unlike Smith, Burke includes spices, while acknowledging that most of his readers will be unable to grow such tropical plants as clove trees and vanilla orchids. I liked the playfulness of including these; it is interesting reading how vanilla pods are harvested even if I will never do it myself. All in all this is a marvellous book to daydream over; the beautifully styled photographs were quite evocative, and the recipes sample from Thai, Indian, and Indonesian cuisines as well as the usual French and Italian. If I were going to buy just one of these books it is this one I would buy — but the glory of the library is that I may enjoy them both.