I find there is something embarrassingly intrusive about seeing other people’s shopping lists. It is like reading private diaries or peering inside someone else’s bathroom cabinet: an uncomfortable window into a distinctly personal world.
That said, I could not avoid reading the list left clipped to my supermarket trolley this week. Along with life’s staples – balsamic vinegar, smoked trout and crèmes brulées – was “parsley pots x 15”. The thought worried me for the rest of the day: what could one person possibly want with 15 pots of parsley?
Parsley sauce for a banquet or parsley soup for a family, perhaps? In either event, it would be both a costly and unnecessary way to go about it, because every cook with a garden should have a small patch of parsley on which to draw.
It is a classic garden herb; within reason, the more you take, the more it will produce. In most soils – although not heavy clays – parsley is easy to grow from seed. Choose the curled types for attractive garnish and the flat-leaf or Italian varieties for flavour. That said, a couple of pots of supermarket parsley planted in the ground can offer a convenient shortcut and will soon establish and bulk up. And once established they will develop a stronger, richer taste.
And therein lies the rub with pots of shop-bought herbs, even for folk with no garden and just a balcony or window ledge. The herbs you find at the supermarket are raised from seed and will generally not have the depth of flavour of those grown in the garden or even raised in your own pots.
I say this for two reasons: first, they have been forced in a greenhouse and anything grown in such a cosseted environment will have a more feeble taste than a plant that has had to fend for itself in the harsh world of the British climate. And second, for woody perennial herbs such as thyme and rosemary, the finest flavours lie with varieties that simply cannot be raised from seed and must be grown from cuttings. A pot of thyme variety Silver Posie or a rosemary such as Miss Jessup’s Upright bought at a garden centre will always be far superior in flavour to anything grown from seed. Basil, however, is among the few exceptions to my shop-bought herb aversion as it can be tricky to raise yourself and is prone to be eaten by pests in the garden.
My short list of essential garden herbs always includes parsley, thyme and rosemary. But what else? I would add sage (the basic green-leaved form is fine), chives, mint (if you have only room for one, it should be apple mint, always confined in a sunken pot because it is invasive), French (definitely not Russian) tarragon and marjoram (the golden variety is the more attractive and equal in flavour to the green). A garden herb bed including the above essentials need occupy no more than about one square metre.
In an emergency and especially in winter, supermarket herbs can play a part. But with a little planning and foresight, a small collection sown or planted now in your garden or in pots on your window ledge will be immeasurably superior. And if parsley soup really is to appear on your menu in the autumn, I suggest you start now with a couple of packets of seed. It is certainly not something to be conjured up on impulse at the last minute, when even 15 pricey pots may not be enough.
This article appears in the 03 Apr 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit wreckers