In terms of cookery, it's unfortunate that herbs seem to have become the poor relations to spices as an addition to food. This may be because herbs are ubiquitous. They are in our gardens and all around us in the environment and they tend to have subtle flavours that gently enhance the flavours of food. In comparison, spices are far more brash. They have a tradition of being expensive and give a certain ‘oomph’ to food. Just think of chillies and black pepper. But is this comparison accurate? Do we really have to denigrate herbs as much as we seem to?
First, let's think on what a herb is. Almost by definition an herb represents any herbaceous part of a plant. This means any combination of the stems the leaves and the flowers. Basically those permanent parts of a plant that live above ground (fruit, buds and flowers are excluded by this definition in that they're transient parts of a plant).
The truth is that the ignoring of herbs in favour of spices is a modern phenomenon. This is mainly due to the ready availability of spices. Yet, what meal is complete without thyme, coriander or chives. Despite this it has to be said that the glory days of herbs were in the Middle Ages and the Tudor era where herbs were an essential part of any apothecary's garden and both monks and physicians would grow herbs (though it has to be admitted that herbs were grown more for their perceived medicinal, rather than their culinary values). But that should not detract form the use of herbs as a flavouring agent during these times. After all, spices were a rare commodity sourced from far afield whilst herbs could quite literally be sourced ‘on the doorstep’.
Far more so than spices herbs vary from region to region in the world and a common herb in Asia, for example, might be completely unknown in the West (rice-paddy herb is an example of this). Yet herbs provide an extensive palate of flavours ranging from the subtlety of basil through the ubiquity of mint to the almost pungent notes of rosemary.
All our food is flavoured with herbs during cooking (even if it's just the ‘two veg’ that accompanies our meat). But that's not even scratching the surface of the possibilities of herbs.
The truth is that herbs are hardy, easily grown and even if you only have the inside of a window you can still grow herbs like basil, oregano, coriander, thyme and chives. Those are sufficient to lift the flavours of just about any meal. And if you think of certain meals such as fish or eggs, you immediately think of using herbs with them, rather than spices. So go out there and explore the world of herbs today.
Dyfed Lloyd Evans is an author and cook He is responsible for the Celtnet recipes site , is an avid collector of spices from all over the world and has now just produced a Guide to Herbs that includes herbs from all over the world. Why not explore the world of culinary experience with him?