MANY culinary traditions relying on herbs originated in the ancient world and reached northern Europe, including Britain, with the Romans. Forgotten during the Dark Ages, herbs were reintroduced into cultivation by the monks in the early Middle Ages and were the main flavouring, colouring and preserving agents. Even when the great spice markets of London flourished, herbs were cultivated, marketed and used in homes as very important items for the still room. Only the nineteenth-century industrial revolution brought a decline in their popularity with the mass production of synthetic flavourings.
Since the Second World War there has been a marked reawakening of interest in herbs and natural foods, which was initiated in America. When herbs are grown well the nutritional, digestive and preserving values are retained.
In the past, on both sides of the Atlantic, culinary herbs and vegetables were grown together in the kitchen garden. But twentieth-century gardeners have developed a love for decorative herb gardens, where ‘sweet’ herbs grow alongside ‘pot’ herbs and where numerous plants that had almost been forgotten have been brought back into cultivation.
All cooks have their own ideas about which herbs to use, but some herbs have an almost classical affinity with certain foods — these are listed in the following catalogue of culinary herbs. Often a small bunch of several sprigs of different herbs may be added to a dish, by tying them with cotton and allowing the bunch to float in the pan or dish during cooking time, and then removing it before serving. Chopped fresh herbs can be added to salads or sauces, or mixed into cream cheeses, or even be incorporated into herb butters. Vinegars may be flavoured with herbs, or in some instances coloured by them — chive flowers for example, turn vinegar a pretty pink.