Elizabeth David on the use of Herbs

It is sometimes thought, I believe, that the use of herbs in cookery is an import brought to this country from France, Italy, Spain and other foreign countries. There, it is thought, they are used in great quantities to disguise the meat, fish and vegetables which, it is mistakenly believed, have not the superior flavour of our own. In fact, as a nation we have always relied a good deal on herbs in cookery and we still do. It is only that the varieties have become very restricted.
At one time the term ‘herbs’ included, as well as all the aromatic herbs, green leaf and salad vegetables such as spinach, sorrel, lettuce and celery, with shallots, leeks and often flowers as well; cowslips, tansy, nasturtiums, elder flowers and marigolds.

Eighteenth-century cookery books included, as well as numerous herb teas, wines and medicinal concoctions, recipes for herb puddings, soups and pies to be eaten in the spring to refresh the blood after a winter diet of salt meat and dried vegetables. The custom survives to this day in the rhubarb dishes of spring. The choice of herbs to flavour fish, meat and fowl was originally based on the principle that what the animals ate, or the plants growing where they grazed, were used to bring out the flavour of their flesh when they were cooked. A few tips for the preparation of herbs for kitchen use may be useful. Small quantities of fresh herbs such as chives and parsley to sprinkle on salads or in soups are best cut with kitchen scissors.

For larger amounts, there is a most useful solid little wooden bowl and chopper made in France especially for this pur- pose, and which eliminates the washing of the chopping board every time parsley and onion have to be chopped. This can be bought in London. Another method is to place the herbs to be chopped in a heavy tumbler (a glass mustard jar is ideal) and, turning the jar round and round in one hand, with the other chop the herbs with scissors.

To dry herbs for winter use, put them on a tray in a fairly fast oven, and when dry store them as they are, on the stalks (the flavour keeps better unpowdered) in glass-stoppered jars. With this method you can always see what you’ve got. Fines herbes for omelettes, fish, liver, steaks and so on should, unless otherwise specified, be a mixture of parsley, chervil, chives and tarragon. A mixture of chopped mushrooms and shallots was also at one time known as fines herbes but is properly a duxelles. A bouquet garni, or faggot of herbs, consists of a bayleaf, one or two parsley stalks and a sprig of thyme tied with a thread so that it can be removed from the stew before serving.

Occasionally in French cookery books the term fournitures is used in directions for salad or soup-making. This means salad herbs, which in French markets are usually sold on stalls separate from the vegetable stalls, by the women who have brought their little bunches in from the country. Sorrel is usually included among the fournitures.

Rosemary and sage, two of the most beautiful aromatic herbs of the garden, can also be two of the most disastrous in the kitchen unless used in infinitesimal quantities. The oils which they contain easily overwhelm other flavours, and im- part an acrid taste to stuffings, sauces and stocks. I have always thought it odd that in England, where ‘messed up’ food is so violently condemned, a particularly coarse mixture like sage and onions should be so popular. However, these things are a question of taste, and I only advise, when rosemary has been put into a stew, that it should be removed before serving so that the diners do not choke on the spiky little leaves.

Sauce verte

This is, I think, one of the great achieve- ments of the simpler French cooking. It straightaway lifts any fish with which it is served into the sphere of elegance. But it need not be confined to fish. First prepare a very thick mayonnaise with 2 or even 3 egg yolks, one-third to half a pint of best olive oil, and a few drops of wine or cider vinegar. The other ingredients are 10 fine spinach leaves, 10 sprigs of watercress, 4 of tarragon, 4 of parsley. Pick the leaves of the watercress, tarragon and parsley from the stalks. Put all these leaves with the spinach into boiling water for 2 minutes. Strain, and squeeze them quite dry, pound them, and put the resulting paste through a fine sieve. It should emerge a compact purée. Stir gradually into the mayonnaise.

La soupe au pistou

A famous soup of which there are many versions. Pesto, the basil, cheese and pine nut sauce of the Genoese, was adapted by their neighbours in Nice, who modified it to suit their own tastes, and called it, in the local dialect, pistou. It is the addition of this sauce to the soup which gives it its name and its individuality. Without it, it is simply a variation of minestrone. Basil is not easy to come by in England, although a century ago it was common, being essential for the flavouring of turtle soup. It is also said to have given the peculiar flavour to the famous Fetter Lane sausages.
Now to the soup, a version taken from
a book of Provençal recipes, Mets de Provence, by Eugène Blancard (1926). In a little olive oil, let a sliced onion take colour; add two chopped and peeled tomatoes. When they have melted pour in 21 pints of water. Season. When the water boils throw in lb of green French beans cut into inch-lengths, 4 oz of white haricot beans (these should be fresh, but in England dried ones must do, previous- ly soaked, and cooked apart, but left slightly underdone; or they may be omitted altogether, the quantity of pota- toes and vermicelli being increased to make up for them), a medium-size cour- gette unpeeled and diced, 2 or 3 potatoes, peeled and diced. When available, add also a few chopped celery leaves, and a chopped leek or two. After 10 minutes add 2 oz of large vermicelli in short lengths.
In the meantime prepare the following mixture: in a mortar pound 3 cloves of garlic with the leaves of about 10 sprigs of very fresh basil. When they are in a paste, start adding drop by drop two or three tablespoons of olive oil. Add this to the soup at the last, off the fire. Serve with grated Parmesan or Gruyère.

Poulet rôti à l’estragon

Tarragon imparts an exquisite flavour to chicken; to me Poulet à l’estragon is one of the great treats of summer.

For a fat roasting chicken weighing about 2 lb when plucked and drawn, knead a good oz of butter with a table- spoon of tarragon leaves, half a clove of garlic, salt, pepper and a tablespoon of breadcrumbs. Put this inside the bird, which should be well coated with olive oil. Roast the bird lying on its side on a grid in a baking dish. Turn it over at half time; about 20 minutes on each side in a hot oven should be sufficient (those who have a roomy grill might try grilling it, which takes about 25 minutes, and gives much more the impression of a spit- roasted bird, but it must be constantly watched and turned over so that the legs are as well done as the breast).

When the bird is cooked, heat a small glass of brandy in a soup ladle, set light to it, pour it flaming over the chicken, and rotate the dish so that the flames spread and continue to burn as long as possible. Return the bird to a low oven for 5 minutes, during which the brandy sauce will mature and lose its rawness. Serve with the Poulet à l’estragon a salad of whole, small, peeled tomatoes, dressed with thick cream seasoned with salt, pepper, a few drops of vinegar and some whole tarragon leaves.