The British have a peculiar relationship with herbs. We are attached to our favourites – parsley, rosemary, thyme, basil, mint – yet we are hesitant to stray from these chosen few. There are so many other herbs, the choice can be confusing and yes, there are novelty types – banana mint springs to mind – that are best left untasted, but there are also some less familiar ones that are up there with the best. Here are a few of my favourites.
Sweet cicely is underappreciated in the UK, but in much of northern Europe it's used almost as much as parsley. Its flavour and fragrance aside, it has two great culinary qualities: it gives the impression of sweetening, especially when paired with sharp fruit such as rhubarb, so you can use less sugar; and it is a catalyser, enhancing other flavours while taking a backseat itself. In the garden, it is easy and productive, being cold-hardy, perennial, early to regrow and with delicious seeds.
A delicious, heavily aromatic herb that works in any dish in which you'd use thyme. It inhabits a similar area in the taste spectrum, too, though with a gentle, piney pepperiness. An annual that's easy to grow from seed, it prefers a sunny, well-drained spot, be that in a container or the ground.
Vegetable stock in a plant. A tall, perennial umbellifer, every part of lovage is edible, though the leaves are most commonly used. It has a musky, celery-like flavour that makes a great base for soups, stews and stocks, and works particularly well with pork and tomatoes. If you try it raw, don't be put off by the bitterness: for adding depth and savouriness, lovage is out there on its own. It can be grown from seed, but if you want to enjoy it sooner, buy a small plant. It grows quickly and largely without trouble in most soil.
Also known as shiso. I'd been growing perilla as a herb for a year when one of the River Cottage chefs, Neil Matthews, begged me to grow him some as microleaves – they were, he said, the best. In warmer months, it takes less than a fortnight to grow to 5cm, so it didn't take long to confirm his judgment. It comes in purple and green varieties that have no discernible difference in flavour, but purple wins on looks. Related to basil and mint, perilla has elements of both in its fragrance and flavour, but with an intriguing edge of cumin. Don't cook it for too long, or add it finely chopped at the last minute. It's as easy to grow as any annual herb – start off indoors in spring, or sow direct in early summer. It prefers sun or partial shade. Pinch out the growing tips to get a bushier plant. It will often self-seed, if allowed.
I first tried stevia at Jekka McVicar's nursery, and even though I knew it was sweet, I wasn't prepared for quite how sweet. Dried or fresh, the leaves sweeten fruit beautifully – they're great muddled (ie, bruised) along with mint in a mojito, instead of sugar. To try it for yourself, buy a young plant – it grows to around 60cm and, while it is a perennial, it's very susceptible to frost, so keep it somewhere warm over winter. Use sparingly – even a mere sliver of a leaf is packed with sweetness.
I can't think of a herb with as much zing as this. Pungent, fresh and powerful, lemon verbena is the herb to add lemon brightness to cocktails, ice-cream, custard and all manner of puddings. It's an elegant, medium-sized bush with slim leaves that carry an impressive punch. It's worth a place in your garden on looks alone, but the pleasure of that scent on your fingers, never mind in the kitchen, makes it a must. In our climate, buy a plant rather than growing from seed or cuttings. It likes a sunny, sheltered, well-drained spot, and needs protection in cold months if you want it to grow again next year.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012