It used to be quite common in recipe books to read that if you didn’t like coriander, parsley could easily be used instead – an instruction so entirely wrong-headed it is hard to know where to begin. Britain then being in thrall to French notions of gastronomy, perhaps parsley was considered so innocent and ubiquitous that to use it was almost the same as using no herb at all; perhaps, to put it another way, as the use of such garnishes and flavourings is all so much affectation and ornament, as they all taste the same, no-one will eat them and in any case all meals and all lives eventually come to an end, it doesn’t particularly matter which selection from the herbalist’s garden you choose to throw all over your food – I don’t know. The increased use and therefore availability of good fresh herbs (or perhaps vice versa) is, I think, a handy way in which Britain’s food renaissance can be measured.
The thing about herbs, of course, is that none of them can be substituted for any other, which is odd when you consider that almost every herb we cook with comes from one of two families. Certainly nothing can be substituted for coriander, evoking as it does either the aromas of distant shores or the poky hum of a shield bug. Experts seem to differ as to whether this difference can be explained by a difference in human biology – like the gene which supposedly allows some to taste the hidden foulness of brassicas – or in the plant itself as it varies across place and across time. Personally, I have always found it to be more unpleasantly pungent as the plant begins to bolt, as most herbs are. At any rate, it is one of those smells which, once experienced, seems to lurk always in the background of the once-loved flavour, in the same way that the sweet smell of fresh crab meat can never be entirely free of its sickly decay.
No, apart from the bitterness of plants gone to seed, and the generic greenness which comes out when you bruise or smash any leaf, every herb has a flavour which is really entire and of itself, to the extent that cooking with one new to you is really like discovering a whole new flavour, the more so as the varieties less-used for cooking tend often towards the bold and astringent – whispering Sweet Cicely being, I suppose, the honourable exception. Lovage! Its folding leaves and umbrellas of flowers mark it out as a member of parsley’s team, and it is often compared to celery, but it takes the latter’s astringency to the point where it almost tastes like mint – really, of course, it just tastes like lovage, and very fine it is too, if too strong to be used in great quantity.
One of the delights of Levantine and related cuisines is the use of herbs more as a salad or even a cooked vegetable than as a flavouring or garnish; think of a properly made tabbouleh, which contains only a hint of bulgar wheat against great fistfuls of neatly shredded mint and parsley. The use of similar amounts (the proper measure, Olia Hercules assures us, is “a shitload”) of dill in food that stretches round from Turkey and Georgia, up and through into Russia is something that many find off-putting; for me it is a shibboleth which ties together those rather disparate cuisines, and points to shared origins. Although, as with any herb, you can have too much of a good thing, it is the heavy use of dill and of flat-leaf parsley which makes me prefer the food of Turkey to my once-favourite Moroccan cuisine with its blanket of soft-leafed coriander. Context, though, must play a part; perhaps it is the heavily spiced sweetness I object to more than the herb itself, as I enjoy coriander tucked amongst fish sauce and shredded cabbage and chilli and lime.
Perhaps this kind of taxonomy of food is mistaken; many herbs are more ubiquitous than you might think, although in Britain their use seems to have always been more medicinal than culinary – although as these two pursuits have forever been intertwined, perhaps it would be better to say that their use has been homeopathic, in food and medicine alike. One bay leaf tucked into four litres of braising beef is quite sufficient, thank YOU. Personally, I like to use herbs in great handfuls, whole-leafed in salads, bunches flavouring cream or liquor, masses chopped into a sauce for cold roast mutton. The stronger ones can be chopped up with parsley, which while not featureless does act as a good carrier for more assertive flavours; I like to use the leaves of alexanders, chopped half-and-half with those of parsley, in a green sauce for braised rabbit. Some can still be used homoeopathically, though. Gill Meller tucks a couple of stalks of lovage into some poaching rhubarb, which he serves with fresh cheese; I have an urge to replace the cheese with smoked eel and serve the lot on burnt toast, pink fruit, buttery fish, the scent of mint and iron.