“Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,” goes the Simon and Garfunkel song, Scarborough Fair. For some of us, this was our first introduction to culinary herbs. These and other Mediterranean herbs are the basis for much of the cooking in southern Europe.
In France, particularly in Provence, the basic bouquet garni (garnished bouquet-bundle of herbs) consists of bay leaf, thyme and parsley, but often includes rosemary, peppercorns, tarragon, savory, chervil, and burnet. Traditionally, these herbs are tied in a bunch with string, but they can also be put in a cheesecloth bag. The bundle is used to infuse various stews, soups, stocks and casseroles to add the delicate flavor and aroma of these herbs to the food. The dishes are cooked over slowly over time, and the bouquet garni is removed before serving.
Most of the Mediterranean herbs are very simple to grow, especially in the climate of Southern and Central California. They just need a moderately nutrient dense soil, adequate water and perhaps a little organic fertilizer. These herbs prefer full sun, but benefit from a little bit of shade, given our increasing heat waves in the fall.
In our region, around the Central Coast, Mediterranean herbs will thrive just about anywhere. In the fog and sand of Los Osos and Grover Beach, you see rosemary and lavender growing profusely. They do grow wonderfully together, and their aromas are simply divine. Up in North County, where the soil is harder and temperatures a little more volatile, the European shrubs also perform quite well. They may not get so big and bushy, but they tend develop a bit more intensity in taste and smell. And in the happy, fertile valleys like Edna and Huasna, the conditions are pretty ideal for everything, from pinot noir to all manner of culinary herbs and vegetables.
Parsley is an annual herb, meaning that it will flower, go to seed, and die—with the sound of silence—at the end of the year. Although it does a pretty good job of reseeding itself, so new parsley plants will usually come up the following year. But sage, rosemary and thyme, as well as mint, oregano and savory, are all perennial plants.
Perennials can take a year or two to get established, but they keep growing year after year, more like a bush than a vegetable. Once established, you can harvest from the full stocks while allowing the remaining smaller growth to flourish. Picking the tender, fresh tips will usually get you the best flavor, and also promote more new growth, encouraging the plant to bush out.
All of these herbs pair well with any recipes, or you can simply bake them with alliums, like onions, shallots and garlic. Combine them in a baking dish with your late summer and fall veggies, including tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and all the summer squashes—yellow crooked-necked squash, zucchini. Drizzle with olive oil and you can’t go wrong.
Most of these herbs can be dried and stored, or infused when still fresh. Get some high-quality, local olive oil and find some attractive bottles with good lids. Insert a few sprigs of herbs, as well as a couple cloves of garlic into the bottle, and then fill to the top with olive oil. You can get three or four bottles and experiment with different herb mixes. Store in a cool place away from direct light, and try it after about four weeks with salad dressing or just for dipping fresh bread.
Using these fresh herbs can enhance any dish. You will find them in many recipes around the world, although they are rooted in Mediterranean cuisine. So are you going to Scarborough Fair? If you can’t make it, how about growing some these magical herbs in your garden? Give it a try, and when harvest time rolls around, you’ll be feelin’ groovy!
Check out some of these other articles to learn more about herbs that thrive in Mediterranean climates:
PHOTO CREDIT: Annie Spratt (Unsplash)