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Growing herbs for yourself, and using them. Charts, growing tips, and best of all, recipes for using your harvest!
From the Romans to Today
Lovage, also known by its species designation, Levisticum officinale, is a plant that was first documented in the Liguria region of Italy (the present-day Italian Riviera), and was prized by the Romans for its taste and unique flavour. One of the earliest mentions of lovage is in The Art of Cooking, by Apicius, in approximately the year 50 A.D. (Almost half of Apicius' recipes call for lovage: either roots, leaves or seeds, which is approximately equivalent to the number of modern recipes in a cookbook that call for garlic. Now that shows you how popular this herb was in Roman cuisine!) Lovage is mentioned in the Bible, and in the Middle Ages this nutritious food was grown widely throughout Europe and is still a major component of many European cuisines. Alas, this herb is almost unknown today, which is a shame, because its wonderful flavour and easy care make it a perfect plant to choose for your garden. Because of its height (this plant grows up to six feet tall), this beautiful and intriguing plant makes a great plant for around your foundations, or a beautiful accent plant for your landscaping.
Through the years, every part of the lovage plant has been used in many ways: the stems, leaves and roots chopped raw in salads; the stems, leaves, roots, fruits, and seeds made in teas; the leaves, stalks and roots in soups, sauces, and stews; the roots and stalks served cooked as a vegetable; and the whole of the plant made into alcoholic cordials (you can still do this, by infusing the plant into a container of vodka); the seeds included in all kinds of breads, cakes, and other baked goods; and the stalks and roots blanched and candied, to serve as dessert or a decoration for baked goods.
Lovage typically grows about six feet tall, and can spread either by root division or by seeds. It is a perennial plant which may die back in the winter in all but the warmest climates. Every part of this plant is edible and delicious, and lovage provides a perfect backdrop for lower-growing herbs.
As with any unknown food, try in small quantities until you see how lovage affects you. If you have a health condition, please discuss using any but the smallest amount with your physician.
Once the plant is well-established, lovage needs little care besides occasional watering, and pruning to keep the plants under control. Grow this herb in full or partial sun (at least four hours a day), in well-drained soil, and allow it plenty of space, as it is a very large plant! (Remember, lovage, like most herbs, grows like a weed.) The first year, your plants will grow approximately 2 feet high, but you can begin harvesting lovage stalks and leaves when the plant has grown to twelve inches in height. Harvest leaves and stalks from the outside. If you want to save the seeds, you can wait until seedheads form, then cut off the stalk, turn it upside down inside a paper bag, and hang it up to dry. Otherwise, just buy the seeds for planting.
Lovage in the Garden
Lovage has a strong, intriguing taste, like very strong celery with a hint of mild anise (licorice). You can use lovage sparingly in place of celery (stalks) or parsley (leaves) in any recipe, and the seeds can replace the use of celery seed.
Here is a translation of Apicius' original recipe:
Boil the peas (or beans), stir until smooth. Pound pepper, lovage, ginger; and over the spices put yolks of hard-boiled eggs, 3 oz. honey, liquamen, wine, and vinegar. Put all this, including the spices which you have pounded, in the saucepan. Add oil, and bring to the boil. Season the peas with this. Stir until smooth if lumpy. Add honey and serve.
[What is liquamen, you ask? Think fermented salted fish, or Nam Pla, the Thai fish sauce.]
The designation officinale in the species name means that lovage has tradtionally been used for its medicinal and health benefits. An infusion of lovage has been used as an antiseptic for minor wounds, and is reported to stimulate the digestion.