As regular readers here will know, I’m a big fan of herbs – growing them, cooking with them, talking about them… So as soon as I read Urvashi’s glowing review of Herbfest over at The Botanical Baker, I started planning a trip to London to see the herbs growing in a greenhouse by the Thames for myself. It took a while to engineer a visit, but the school holidays became a good excuse for a day trip to the big city.
Herbs are something everyone should grow, well I think so anyway. Choose the right herb and you have a plant will be easy to grow, useful in the kitchen, and can provide either year round interest or a burst of seasonal flavour and colour. And most herbs have been in cultivation so long, there is a wealth of history and stories associated with them. You know what, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a pot of rosemary next to the barbeque, or a full on herb garden to provide leaves throughout the year, herbs are just about the best plants for adding flavour and scent to your kitchen and garden.
So the idea of growing a whole range of culinary herbs in the middle of London sounded great to me. Herbfest is being run by the Company of Cooks as part of the Southbank Centre’s ‘Festival of Neighbourhood’. One of the things I really liked about the Herbfest greenhouse is that it demonstrates the variety of herbs that can be grown in a relatively small space. The rows of pots lining the shelves contain basil, bay, chives, rosemary, thyme, lavender, mint and more. They look good too, wrapped in hessian with wooden labels, like old fashioned luggage labels, with ideas for how to use each herb in your kitchen. Lots of inspiration for cooks as well as gardeners.
The Herbfest herbs are carefully tended and harvested to be used in cafes and bars across the city. Herbfest is running until 8th September, so if you’re in the area why not go and have a look. While we were there, we also had a good poke around the Queen’s Walk Window Gardens, a display of edible gardening in containers and window boxes. On one side of the windows are beans, chard, carrots and sweetcorn, on the other views of the Thames. It’s a lovely idea with lots of ideas for anyone who’s thinking about growing their own or looking for new ideas to add interest to their garden.
Of course, there has to be a herby recipe to finish off this post doesn’t there. So how about a sponge cake dotted with homegrown raspberries and soaked in lemon verbena syrup?
Lemon verbena is definitely a seasonal herb, producing lemon sherbet flavoured leaves throughout the summer. These leaves make a refreshing cup of tea, or you might like to use some to make lemon verbena cupcakes. This is such a herby post and recipe that it has to be my offering for the August Cooking with Herbs Challenge over at Lavender and Lovage.
Raspberry & lemon verbena drizzle cake
for the cake:
240g soft light brown sugar
240g unsalted butter
175g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
75g ground almonds
4 medium, free range eggs
100g frozen raspberries
for the syrup:
35g caster sugar
¼ cup fresh lemon verbena leaves
Grease and line a 20cm cake tin. Preheat the oven to something 160oC, 350F, gas 3.
In a mixing bowl beat together the sugar and butter until they are light and creamy. Sift the flour and baking powder into a separate bowl, then stir in the ground almonds.
Add the eggs to the sugar and butter mixture one at a time, beating well as each egg is added. If the mixture starts to look like it’s going to separate, add a spoonful of the flour mixture too.
When the eggs are thoroughly mixed in, fold in the flour mixture using a metal spoon. As the flour is nearly incorporated, add the raspberries and fold them in too.
Tip the cake mixture into the prepared cake tin, and bake in a preheated oven for 50-60 minutes – or until a skewer pushed into the cake comes out clean.
While the cake is in the oven, make the lemon verbena syrup. Put the water and sugar into a small pan and warm over a low heat, stirring regularly, until the sugar is completely dissolved. Then increase the heat to bring the mixture to nearly boiling point. Pout the hot sugar syrup into a jug containing the lemon verbena leaves, stir and leave to infuse for 10 minutes. Pout the syrup through a strainer to remove the leaves.
When the cake is cooked, leave it in the tin and use a skewer to poke lots of holes evenly over the top. Slowly pour the lemon verbena syrup over the warm cake using a spoon, allowing it to soak in., then leave it to cool in the tin.
The cake is good on its own, and even better served with a big spoonful of Greek yoghurt.