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Jekka's tips on using herbs - culinary and medicinal properties

by Alistair McVicar |

Herbs provide a feast for the senses and, as Jekka recently said, 'they are the high notes in the orchestra as the conductor makes the music swirl around the auditorium'.  

Within Jekka's Herbetum we have over 400 culinary herbs from which to choose. The majority will happily grow in containers, so are ideal for a small space or for planting out in a garden. Herbs are very generous, they compliment many meals and turn the simplest ingredients into a feast. 

However, herbs are far more than just flavour. The famous quote, attributed to Hippocrates, 'Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food'  further enforces their importance as food for our health and well-being. This is supported by recent scientific studies into Rosemary that have shown a variety of health benefits including improved concentration, digestion, and brain ageing and from similar studies into flax seed, that is purported to have a number of benefits including aiding the reduction in obesity and regulating blood pressure. Recently, Jekka was told by a group of doctors that flax seed would be one thing they would recommend everyone added to their diet due to the numerous health benefits (please note that Jekka's is not a herbalist and you should consult a licensed medical expert before making any changes to your diet). 

Not only do herbs have wonderful culinary and medicinal properties, herbs are also of great value around the home. For example, Thyme is a natural antiseptic and can be used to make a disinfecting cleaner. These topics are covered in further detail in our How To Use Herbs Master Class

Our Herbetum majors on the Lamiaceae family that, as anyone who has been on one of our Open Day Herbetum tours would know, includes mint, rosemary, thyme, basil, oregano and lavender (to name a few). This blog looks into the main culinary and medicinal properties of these herbs. 

Mint (Mentha) 

Mint is a culinary delight, making either wonderful vinegars and jellies or as a tea that aids digestion. We find that drinking too much peppermint tea can be over stimulating so with our Mint Fiesta Herbal Infusion we combine peppermint with spearmint to making a soothing digestive. Mint is also great as a garnish to our new gin. Mint and chocolate is a classic combination and we have a wonderful 'After Eight' macaroon recipe for you to try. 

Mint has also been cultivated for its medicinal properties since ancient times and has been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 1000 BC. Peppermint in particular is aromatic, calmative, antiseptic, antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-parasitic and also a stimulant. Externally, peppermint oil can be used in a massage to relieve muscular pain. Please see our previous blog on Mint.

Rosemary (Rosemarinus) 

We have over 20 rosemarys in our collection and they can have upright, arching or prostrate habits. They are extremely valuable in anyone's kitchen and combine well with lamb, potatoes, casseroles and tomato sauces. Also, as we recently discovered, it is wonderful deep fried and served with homemade tagliatelle. Just adding a sprig to water, gives you free rosemary water with its restorative properties as described earlier. 

Like many essential oils, rosemary oil has antibacterial and anti-fungal properties and it helps poor circulation if rubbed onto effected joints. Rosemary tea makes a good mouthwash for halitosis and is also a good antiseptic gargle. Rosemary tea is wonderful in the morning as it settles the stomach and clears the head, idea for anyone before a big exam or presentation.

Thyme (Thymus) 

At Jekka's we grow a large variety of thymes that have a very diverse appearance from upright to creeping and mat forming with green to gold or silver foliage. The bees love the white, mauve, lilac, pink or red flowers and bumble bees can often be seen crawling over the thyme beds even on a rainy day. Thyme is often used in cooking but many people are unaware of its ability to aid digestion and help break down fatty foods, which is why it is found in rich foods such as stocks and stews and is one of the main ingredients in a boquet garni.  

As mentioned, this inconspicuous little plant has strong antiseptic and anti-bacterial properties. The tea makes a gargle or a mouthwash and is excellent for sore throats. As a throat soother it is often added to teas for singers to help support their vocal cords. Thyme is also said to calm the nerves and sedate the body. 

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) 

Our Basil's are now ready for sale, taking 6 weeks from seed to sale, making them a wonderfully crunchy, colourful, rich in flavour, and diverse herb. The flavour of basil runs from lemon (Mrs Burns), anise (Thai) to cumin and plums (Purple Shiso, Japanese Basil). However, for people new to basil, you should use it with discretion otherwise it may dominate other flavours. It is one of the few herbs to increase its flavour when cooked. For best results add at the end of a meal. Our basil biscuit recipe, a recent star on our Master Class 'Herb-based cooking', is now available online here for you to try at home. 

Once prescribed as a sedative against gastric spasms and as an expectorant and laxative, basil is rarely used in herbal medicines today. However, as it is a close relative to Mint, Basil leaves can be added to food to aid digestion and inhaling the aromas from a few drops of basil oil is said to allay mental fatigue. 

Oregano & Marjoram (Origanum) 

The Greeks and Romans not only used Oregano as a scent after taking a bath and as a massage oil but also as a disinfectant and a preservative. Although Oregano is now widely used in British cooking this only really started after the arrival of package holidays from the UK enabling the exploration of Mediterranean cuisine. Majoram and Oregano both aid the digestion and are among the main ingredients in bouquet garni. They combine well with pizza, meat and tomato dishes, vegetables and milk-based desserts. 

Sweet majoram, which originates from North Africa, was introduced into Europe in the 16th century and was incorporated in nosegays to ward off the plague and other pestilence. Nowadays, this plant is one of the best antiseptics owing to its high thymol content. Majoram teas helps ease bad colds, has a tranquilizing effect on nerves and helps to settle upset stomachs. It also helps to prevent sea sickness. 

Lavender (Lavendula) 

Lavender is one of the most popular herbs in today's herb garden. In Jekka's Herbetum we split the Lavenders into three main groups: Lavendula angustifolia, Lavendula x intermedia and Lavendula stoechas. This allows you to see their different habits and flowers. Lavender is typically used in sweet dishes and can be used in herb jellies, vinegars and biscuits. You can also crystallise the flowers. 

Throughout history Lavender has been used to sooth, sedate and suppress.  Lavender has also been used as a strewing herb for its insect-repellent properties and for masking household and street smells. Similar to Oregano, it was also carried as a nosegays to ward off the plague and pestilence. Nowadays, it is the essential oil that is in demand and it is also used in linen sachets in wardrobes for its scent and moth repellent properties.
  
A blog post on medicinal and culinary herbs would be amiss for not mentioning some of our other favourites: Angelica, BorageCelery Leaf, Chervil, French Tarragon and Lovage. You can find out more through the links to Jekkapedia, in Jekka's Complete Herb Book or on one of our Master Classes.