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Soft power

Angela Clutton on how the soft, aromatic herbs of springtime bring with them a fresh burst of colour and flavour


Images: Regula Ysewijn

I think – I hope – that broadly speaking most of us have got our heads around the seasonality of our fruit and vegetables: strawberries in summer, pumpkins in winter, etcetera, etcetera. We’re starting to get a feeling for the seasonality of some meats, too. And, increasingly so, fish. But herbs? I wonder to what degree many of us even think of herbs as being seasonal – especially when we see the supermarkets selling those same slightly sad-looking plastic bags of basil, dill and the like all year round. Yet herbs really can be seasonal. Springtime is when the first delicate leaves of many soft, aromatic herbs begin to make their appearance. Much like the first sightings of crocuses or snowdrops, every year it seems to me a miracle that these dainty herbs have not just survived the harsh winter but are pushing through it, embracing the new light and bringing with them a lightness of flavour too.

They come to bring relief from the woody herbs of winter, such as rosemary and thyme, that have done such steadfast flavour service in hearty stews and more. As the arrival of spring brings a hankering for bright flavours, the new season’s herbs are well set to partner with all manner of other spring and summer produce.

The idea that we should make themost of various aspects of produce that come into season at the same time has rarely been highlighted better than by Thomas Tusser in 1557. A farmer, Tusser wrote A Hundred Good Points of Husbandry – a sort of ‘how-to’ for the farming year, in poem form. So popular was his poem that by the time it was republished in 1573 the 100 points had become 500, and the recommended herbs of fennel, parsley, tansy, thyme and “mints of all sorts” were amplified with 21 herbs for strewing, 22 for salads and sauces, and 28 for the “physic”. And that’s not even all of the herbs he mentions.

Tusser’s point – and it is mine too – was that we should enjoy all the land has to offer at the time that it does so. Take chicken – or, more specifically, spring chicken. I know, I know, we get chickens all year round now, but in heritage farming spring chickens were young chickens. (And once knowing that, the phrase about being a spring chicken makes rather more sense.) The meat of young chickens has a lighter flavour than older birds, perfect to be partnered with feathery dill, fennel or tarragon – three of spring’s most vibrant and useful herbs, each bringing its own distinctive note of aniseed flavour.

I like to chop up a bundle of those herbs, stir them through 150g or so of softened butter, season, and then gently push it under the skin of the chicken before roasting. The herb butter pervades the flesh, making it extra succulent and flavoursome. The butter is also exceptionally lovely for serving with young, sweet spring carrots that have been lightly braised but little more.

Other spring herb and produce partnerships? How about new-season oregano or any of the aforementioned aniseedy three with young goat’s cheeses? You could bake a tart of the cheese with some asparagus and spring onions, and throw some of the herbs in there too. Or whip yoghurt through with chervil or any other spring herbs to serve alongside a piece of baked fish (think plaice or sea trout). Or – and this is a bit of a personal fave – crab and some steamed-to-tender new potatoes mixed together into a salad with lemon, olive oil and chopped lovage.

I could go on and on with similar ideas – but in all of them so far the spring herbs are there merely as workers, doing a small but important job in among a host of other flavours, complementing and enhancing them. But these herbs are so joyous, so fresh tasting, that we should really take time to enjoy them as more of the main event too. Perhaps herb pies with lots – and I mean lots – of miscellaneous chopped spring herbs, mixed through with hard-boiled eggs and spring onions, before being baked in puff pastry. A true lunchbox treat, right there.

Or you could take inspiration from the Bavarian soup krautlsuppe that I came across in one of Elisabeth Luard’s books. She describes it as being typically served on the day before Good Friday, as, by tradition, bitter spring herbs are often eaten at Easter as a sign of penitence. The recipe calls for a simple base of onion and stock, with a mix of chervil, watercress, spinach and sorrel, and potato to thicken. If a bowl of that is meant to be a punishment, it’s one I’ll happily take.

I’ve been thinking, too, of the Middle Eastern dish sabzi kordhan – a platter of herbs such as mint, fennel, dill, coriander or radish leaves that stays on the dining table throughout a meal. The herbs just sit there, ready to be reached for whenever a burst of freshness is needed. I love the idea of having the herbs ready as a refresher, but also how visually beautiful they must be.

The beauty of fresh spring herbs is a large part of their charm. It is why they are so useful as a garnish. The elegant, delicate fronds of dill or chervil. Spears of tarragon. The green vibrancy of mint and chives. (Although there is little more likely to ruin for me a perfectly lovely brunch than an unexpected sprinkling of chopped chives on my poached eggs. But that’s just as personal thing). In an age where Instagram-able food is hotly pursued, herbs have the ability to turn the dullest-looking dish into a photogenic beauty. It is why parsley is so ubiquitous, but parsley is only the very tip of the possibilities.

I find it very hard not to get a little carried away and buy too many of these beautiful herbs at this time of year. Often too many to use, really. But it’s not that much of a problem. I know I’ll steep some in red wine vinegar or cider vinegar for an infusion that will be useful for months to come. I finely chop some into salts. And there’s usually a corner of my spring and summer freezer packed with little bundles of herb butters, like the one I mentioned earlier to go with the chicken. I make the butters with all sorts of mixes of herbs, with maybe a grating of lemon zest added too, roll them up in protective film, and freeze ready for slicing into all kinds of cooking.

It means I’m never short of the fresh burst of colour and flavour that these seasonal herbs can so easily provide.