There’s more to herbs than parsley and mint, just ask the woman who has been dubbed herb royalty by Jamie Oliver.
English gardener Jekka McVicar – or the Queen of Herbs as she is known to her good friend the Naked Chef – grows over 600 varieties in her own backyard.
McVicar, in Sydney this week to promote her new book, has just finished planting organic herb gardens in Oliver’s latest string of restaurants, Jamie’s Italian.
But despite her foodie friends and culinary expertise, McVicar says you can do much more with herbs than stuff a chook or add flavour to a hotpot.
She says you can use herbs for anything from cleaning your house (infusion of thyme) to ridding your pets of fleas (rub tansy on their fur). You can even grow you own first aid kit, she says.
McVicar says the use of herbs for medicinal purpose goes back over the centuries.
“They are the foundation of all our medicine,” she says.
“I’m sure if you’ve got a dog or a cat at home if they’re feeling poorly they’ll trot out and eat some grass – we’ve lost that instinct.
“We … expecting everything to come out of the packet.”
While herbs don’t have any nutritional value they stimulate gastric juices, aiding digestion.
“That’s highly beneficial in one’s diet,” McVicar says.
“They help stop you getting wind, they help you break down the food (especially bay leaves and coriander).”
Organic herbs are the best way to go, McVicar says, because “if they’ve not been sprayed with anything you know you’re eating something that’s as it’s intended”.
However, while a firm believer in “fresh is best”, McVicar says dried herbs also have their place.
“There are times of the year when you can’t have the herb of your choice and dried is brilliant because … it kind of brings summer back into your kitchen.”
Dried herbs should be kept in a dark place and while it’s fine to buy fresh herbs in bunches from the supermarket (just keep them in the fridge), it’s easy enough to grow them at home in a window box outside.
Jekka McVicar’s essential herb first aid kit:
– Aloe vera: “Just use some Aloe Gelly, thats placed convieniently in the kitchen and if you’ve burnt or scalded yourself and it just heals immediately”.
– Peppermint: “For anyone who gets indigestion or has tummy bug and they want to stop that heaving of the stomach. You just put four or five peppermint leaves in a mug and you add water that’s just off the boil and … after five minutes you can drink that”.
– Thyme: “I’m a gardener I’m forever getting grazes on my hands … all you have to do is boil up some leaves and you’ve got a lovely antiseptic”.
– Sage: “Brilliant for sore throats and for children who are reluctant tooth-brushers. You can just get the leaf and if they rub their teeth with the leaf it makes their teeth white and it also stops gum disease”.
– Basil “if you get that nervous stomach, basil tea’s brilliant for that”.
– Hyssop: “I put a inch of hyssop with an inch of thyme in a mug and I use that for coughs”.
– Fennel: “Wonderful if you have bad breath or … if anyone’s suffering from wind it’s very good indeed. One teaspoon of fennel seed in a mug, but I do recommend straining that or you can choke”.
Must-have herbs for your kitchen.
– Chives: for a subtle onion flavour. The flowers can also be used.
– Thyme: good with meat and vegetables.
– Basil: goes in all salads.
– French Tarragon: good in stuffings and with potatoes.
Tips for growing your own organic herb garden:
– Always water in the morning.
– Avoid direct sunlight.
– Feed liquid fertiliser weekly.
– Picking herbs regularly encourages growth. Always pick from the top of the plant.