Before modern day commercialism took its hold, people relied heavily on native plants and herbs for their household medicines, cosmetics and cleaning products. Most country dwellings had their own herb garden, however modest, and every self-respecting housekeeper held a store of time-honoured recipes. Herbs and plants were an integral part of the housekeeper’s armoury and have played a fascinating part in our domestic history.
The history of herbs
As far back as the middle ages, monks were growing herbs for medicinal purposes and acted as neighbourhood physicians to the poorer people of the community. Most manor houses also had a herb garden and it fell to the lady of the house to prepare, dry and distill the herbs for their various uses, which included cooking and making perfumes to sweeten the often foul air!
Herbs were planted in quite formal patterns, culinary always separated from medicinal, a practice which reached a peak in the 16th and 17th centuries with intricate knot gardens of thyme, marjoram and lavender gracing the grounds of the wealthier country houses. Chequerboard patterns and wheel shapes were favourites, no better illustrated than at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire
Storage and preparation
After being cut and dried on trays, herbs were kept in spice boxes resembling miniature chests of drawers, each drawer reserved for a specific herb. There were also stacked wooden column containers and specially made, beautifully decorated spice tins. As and when they were needed, the herbs would be cut up using iron choppers and the spices ground in a mortar with a pestle.
Today, drying your own herbs is an easy process and the results far outshine anything shop bought. Freshly picked herbs should be washed and dried on paper towels. They can then either be tied in bunches and hung in a warm dry room, or spread out on a baking sheet in a low oven. Once dried they should be crushed and stored in airtight containers in a cool place. Fresh herbs can also be wrapped in foil and stored in the freezer or chopped into an ice tray which is then filled with water and frozen, to be used as required.
Cooking with herbs
Herbs and spices have long been used in cooking. Oregano, for instance, was a particular favourite of the Elizabethans and it was they who introduced the use of bouquet garni. The traditional bouquet garni is made from three sprigs of parsley, two of thyme and a bay leaf tied together in a muslin pouch. Other herbs can be added to taste, such as fennel for fish dishes and three sage leaves for pork dishes. Put into a decorative jar they make a pretty and inexpensive gift.
Today we have access to herbs and spices from all over the world, and quite apart from anything else they can make a healthy and tasty alternative to sugar and salt. Lemon balm and angelica make excellent replacements for sugar; lovage, thyme and marjoram can take the place of salt; and basil or nasturtium make good pepper substitutes. The flowers of borage, marigold and nasturtium also look wonderful as food decoration.
Herbs in household products
Herbs were also widely used in household products, usually for their pleasant aroma and colouring ability. Soap, for instance, was often perfumed and coloured with lavender, rosemary and lemon balm. Bundles of lavender, called lavender faggots, were and still are excellent when used to keep linen smelling fresh. Pot pourri has been used since medieval times and to ward off evil spirits, and no self-respecting lady went out and about in the streets without her pomander!
Herbs were and still are a wonderful way to incorporate natures best into your home. Use them where you can.