The Herbocracy

Sunday Brunch is my current favourite non-fiction programme (closely followed by Location, Location, Location).  My Sunday morning routine consists of settling myself on the couch for three hours armed with a giant cup of tea and some manner of bread/eggs/cheese/cold meat-based breakfast to graze at.  (Yes, I basically prepare an Enid Blyton-style picnic to enjoy in the comfort of my living room – for maximum effect I announce periodically to the couch cushions how spiffing the food tastes.) I love Simon and Tim’s ridiculously causal banter.  Also, since I bothered my bum to register at Channel4.com and make myself a ‘Scrapbook’, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how easy a lot of the recipes actually are.  I generally mistrust things that look easy on the TV, having reached the conclusion long ago that the casual air of simplicity conveyed on ‘how-to-do-it’ features can only truly be achieved through copious scene editing, and industrial quantities of make-up to hide the stress, sweat and tears required to complete the ‘simply elegant, and elegantly simple’ creations.  Not so with Simon.  I trust Simon.  He’s honest and Northern.  Plus, if Tim can do it, then it must be possible for us mere non-chef mortals.  And also, they have awesome features, such as the Ugly Animal Preservation Society (newly appointed mascot of which is the Blobfish) and Warhorse.  Sunday Brunch is the best.

Now, Tim maintains that parsley is the King of herbs.  This got me thinking, because I don’t see parsley as a King.  Don’t get me wrong – I love and have massive respect for parsley – but I don’t see it as monarch.  It’s a solid, dependable worker herb.  I always thought of parsley as the worker-bee rather than the Queen-bee; the common soldier.  Then I thought, well maybe I’m not giving it enough credit.  Maybe I’m ignoring parsley’s leadership qualities.  Maybe it is a higher ranking herb than that.  But even if parsley did climb the hierarchical herb-ladder, I still can’t see it as a King.  Parsley would scorn the pomp and circumstance – ‘The pith o’ sense an’ pride o’ worth / Are higher rank than a’ that.’  So, after much thought and deliberation, I decided that parsley would be the common soldier, who through skill, hard graft and capability gets elevated up the ranks to become army General, trusted and relied upon by the King, and respected by all his men – a Russell Crowe in Gladiator kind of herb, if you will.

Here’s the rest of my herbocracy and society:

Basil:  the King
Basil has real presence – a strong, clean smell.  Basil would be a virile King, in his prime.  It is (allegedly) a resilient herb – easy to grow either outside or as an indoor plant.  (I say allegedly because I’ve never been able to keep a supermarket bought basil plant alive, but that possibly reflects more upon me than on the herb.)  Also, I have just this second realised that (like ‘basilisk’) the word ‘basil’ derives from the Greek ‘basileus’ meaning King, which absolutely vindicates my decision.

Tarragon:  the Queen
Tarragon has quite a unique scent – something special that sets it aside from the common herbs.  It has a sweet, subtle aroma, but also has a strong distinctive flavour.  Tarragon would be a kind and gentle Queen, but with the strength to rule her people.

Coriander:  the Prince
I had real problems deciding if coriander was a boy or a girl herb.  It has a fresh, young, sweet scent.  In the end I decided it would be a young princeling, maybe somewhat effeminate, perhaps slightly cosseted, but full of youthful cheer and exuberance, and adored by all.  (Except for Tim, who doesn’t like coriander.)

Thyme:  the King’s Mother
Thyme is a hard herb, and doesn’t have that fresh quality of the soft herbs like basil, tarragon and coriander.  It still has a sweetness, but it has that strength that comes with age and maturity.  Thyme would be the King’s mother, a strong guiding presence and a force to be reckoned with.

Parsley:  the General
See above.  ‘My name is Parslius Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Seasoning Legions, loyal servant to the true King, Basilius Herbius.’  You get the idea.  Or if you don’t, you should go and watch Gladiator again.

Mint:  the fool
Mint might be my favourite herb.  I love the smell as you cut into fresh mint – it just hits you in waves.  I could sit and chop mint all day.  But I had real trouble deciding what character it would be; and I think that was because I was struggling to reconcile a seeming contradiction between the sugary sweet reminds-me-of-childhood association I have with mint, and the more rounded adult capacity of the herb in its natural form.  And then it hit me how closely that relates to ‘the fool’ – the performance of nonsensical entertainment and tomfoolery, thinly veiling a deeper insight and acute perception of the world.

Sage:  the wise woman / fortune-teller / apothecary
This one’s all in the name really, but sage really does have an appropriate smell of depth and wisdom.  I think sage has to be a woman – it’s got that sweet quality.  If you shut your eyes sage takes you that dimly lit room where the old woman sits with her books and her potions, existing on the boundary between this world, and a world of enchantment and magic.

Rosemary:  the milkmaid
Originally I thought rosemary would be the princess, but when I thought about it more that doesn’t really fit.  Like thyme it has that aged quality.  It lacks the freshness to truly fit the princess profile.  That said, rosemary’s scent is still sweet and fair.  Accordingly, rosemary is the milkmaid – young, sweet and beautiful, but slightly worn before her time by the constant work and weather.

Dill:  the street urchin ragamuffin
I’m not overly keen on dill.  The smell reminds me of gherkins, which I dislike, and which also remind me of McDonalds.  This may mean that I’ve been slightly negatively biased in my allocation of dill, but I do think this is an appropriate match.  Dill’s got that slightly vinegary aroma of the great unwashed, but if you can get past the gherkin association it’s not an unpleasant smell – a likeable scamp.

Chives: the crofter
Chives smell a bit oniony and if you eat them raw they have that slightly sharp acidic taste at first, which mellows into something quite pleasant.  Chives are the crofter – salt of the earth, working the land; gruff on the outside but with a heart of gold underneath.  Plus, chives have to be the farmer equivalent – you can just imagine a chive saying, “ooh ar’ combine ‘arvester”.

Oregano:  the stable boy
Annoyingly, I couldn’t lay my hands on fresh oregano – I’m guessing it’s the wrong season at the moment.  The jar of dried oregano I have in the cupboard has been sitting there for a long time.  I don’t know if that has affected the scent, but the oregano in that jar smells very much like hay.  Until such times as I can lay my hands on the fresh herb, therefore, oregano will be the stable boy.

Marjoram:  the troubador / travelling show
Again, this is based on dried marjoram, and I don’t know what the fresh herb is like.  Dried marjoram reminds me of something, but I can’t put my finger on it.  So, the decision to make marjoram the travelling show is two-fold.  Firstly, to me the smell is bold, exciting and characterised by an air of mystery as I try to understand the scent.  Secondly, I spent so long sniffing at the jar trying to work out why the smell is so familiar that I ended up distinctly light headed as a result.  That’s exactly the type of magic and illusion that comes with a travelling show.

So, that’s my interpretation of herb-land using all the herbs I know.  I know there are other herbs that I’m not familiar with, which will be missing from the list.  At some point I’ll work out a spice society as well, but for now I have to keep a low profile in Morrisons until they forget about the crazy girl standing sniffing herbs in the veg aisle.  Sainsbury’s have obviously encountered this situation in the past – they keep their herbs in sealed bags.  On the plus side, having been forced by Sainsbury’s to actually buy the produce, my kitchen smells like a herb-garden, which makes me happy.

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