For the Love of Lovage

Summer 2004
Lovage
Lovage emerges in the spring with succulent leaves. You can keep using the plant into the fall if you keep it clipped so that it produces young growth continuously. English photo.

By Jean Ann Pollard

“This herbe for hys sweete savoure is used in bathe.” – Thomas Hyll, The Gardener’s Labyrinth, 1577

It’s not too late to love lovage. That mostly unknown, old-fashioned herb (Levisticum officinale) looks and tastes a lot like celery, although it’s stronger in both growth and aroma. In fact, a little goes a long way no matter how it’s used.

A native of southern Europe, lovage was introduced to Great Britain by the Romans, and welcomed in English herb gardens until the middle of the 1800s, one writer remarking that it “joyeth to growe by wayes and under the eaves of a house, it prospers in shadowy places and loves running water.”

This very large, umbelliferous perennial with thick, hollow stems, looking something like a vast celery plant with greenish-yellow flowers, can soar to 5 to 7 feet tall and spread 2 to 3 feet wide. It grows very well in almost any soil, whether or not it’s close by “running water.”[1]

Like so many other plants, lovage was brought to New England by colonists. According to Herbs for Use and for Delight, an anthology of writings from The Herbarist (a publication of The Herb Society of America), “In New England the root used to be candied in sugar syrup … as a candy and a breath purifier, and was called Smallage by our grandmothers. It was very largely grown for sale at the Shaker colonies.”

In fact, Dee Herbrandson’s compilation of Shaker Herbs and Their Medicinal Uses says that Levisticum officinale was “exported both plain and sugared for female complaints and nervousness.”

Parkinson, writing in 1640, says of it: “The whole plant and every part of it smelleth strongly and aromatically and of a hot, sharpe, biting taste. The Germans and other Nations in times past used both the roote and seede instead of Pepper to season their meates and brothes and found them as comfortable and warming.”[2]

Germans, of course, had learned from the Romans. Lovage is mentioned in the nearest thing to a Roman cookbook surviving today. Bearing the name of the first-century gourmet, Apicius, the cookbook was compiled at least three centuries after him; and not all of the recipes can be attributed to the man himself. “Some,” says Reay Tannahill in Food in History, “were certainly later, and a few of these were extracted from manuals of dietetics – fortunately, since writers on diet sometimes specified quantities (a practice not adopted by food writers until the fifteenth century).”

One incredible sauce recipe meant to accompany roast meat “lists a quarter of an ounce each of pepper, lovage, parsley, celery seed, dill, asfetida root, hazelwort, cyperus, caraway, cumin and ginger, plus a little pyrethrum, l Imperial or 1-1/4 American pints of liquamen [best described as a fish sauce] and 2-1/2 fluid ounces of oil.”[3]

One can only marvel.

Again according to Herbs for Use and for Delight, lovage grew in the Herbularius or medicinal herb garden of the famous Abbey of St. Gall in England, taking its history back to the 8th century. And the Reader’s Digest Home Handbook, Herbs [4] reports that its leaves “used to be laid in shoes to revive the weary traveler.” At inns it was served in a popular cordial, which was flavored with tansy and a variety of yarrow known as Achillea ligustica. A modern form of this cordial, the book adds, “is made by steeping fresh lovage seed in brandy, sweetening it with sugar and then drinking it to settle an upset stomach.”

According to the Rombauers’ latest Joy of Cooking, “The leaves of this bold herb whose stems can be candied like Angelica … or blanched and eaten like celery, are often used as a celery substitute with stews … . The seeds are sometimes pickled like capers.”[5] Seeds can also be crushed and added to bread and pastries, sprinkled over salads, rice or mashed potatoes. Blanched leaves and stems can be served with a white sauce. Leaves can also be rubbed on chicken before cooking, or around salad bowls for subtle flavor, or even drunk as tea. Roots can be thinly peeled and cooked. It might be called the ultima herb.

Love and soups are wonderful partners. The following recipe is a favorite with folks who have received vegetables – and lovage – from the Simply Grande Gardens in Winslow.

Simple Lovage Soup

For 2

In a 2-quart porcelainized pot, heat:

2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

Gently sauté in the oil for 5 minutes or until translucent:

2 medium onions, finely chopped

OR 2 cups bunching onions, including tender bottoms and tops, chopped

Add:

4 Tbsp. finely chopped, fresh lovage leaves

2 cloves garlic, minced

Stir in and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly:

1/4 cup white flour

Gradually add:

2 cups chicken or vegetable stock

OR 1-3/4 cups water and 1/4 cup Bragg’s Liquid Aminos

Cover and simmer gently for 15 minutes.

Then add, being careful not to boil:

1 cup milk

freshly ground black or white pepper

To serve, reheat your soup slowly and serve immediately, or chill and serve later.

Note: If your soup isn’t thick enough to please, whisk 1 heaping tablespoon of cornstarch into some cold milk and add the mixture to the pot. Be sure to bring it to a near boil for 1 minute to cook the cornstarch.

When tomatoes finally ripen in Maine come midsummer (or later!), the following recipe will delight palates if lovage has been kept short and new leaves have appeared.

Summertime Tomato Soup

For 4, maybe more

Peel, seed and chop to equal 6 cups:

4 pounds very ripe red or yellow tomatoes

In a large porcelainized saucepan heat:

3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

Sauté in it till wilted:

2 cups chopped onions

1 cup chopped leeks

Add:

2 cups of the chopped tomatoes

1 cup finely sliced carrots

2 large cloves garlic, minced

1/2 tsp. brown sugar

Cook together, stirring, until moisture evaporates and mixture is thick, about 20 minutes.

Whisk in and cook about 2 minutes, stirring:

1 Tbsp. unbleached white flour

When smooth, add:

1/4 cup finely-chopped parsley

3 inches of finely-chopped, fresh, young lovage leaf

the remaining tomatoes

8 cups of nicely seasoned chicken or vegetable stock

If necessary, add:

some freshly ground black pepper and sea salt

Simmer about 15 minutes. Then blend lightly and serve immediately.

Note: Winter in Maine causes lovage to die back, but it’s often the first perennial herb out of the ground come spring. The best plan, if one grows it, is to clip it back every so often during the summer, thus ensuring a steady supply of fresh, young leaves.

Because it dries poorly, chopped lovage leaves frozen in ice cubes are fine when added to winter soups.

Bibliography

1. Another species, Ligusticum scoticum, grows wild in the north of Britain and northern Atlantic coasts of America, according to Tom Stobart in Herbs, Spices and Flavourings, Penguin Books, 1979. In Scotland it was much used cooked or raw in the past. The Scots called it shunis.

2. Rohde, Eleanour Sinclair, A Garden of Herbs, Hale, Cushman & Flint, 1936, p. 92 (in the Dover edition of 1969). Parkinson refers to John Parkinson’s Theatrum Botanicum, 1640.

3. Tannahill, Reay, Food in History, Stein and Day, N.Y., 1973, p. 95.

4. Bremness, Lesley. Ed. Herbs, Reader’s Digest Home Handbook, N.Y. 1990, p. 55.

5. Rombauer, Irma S. and Marion Becker Rombauer, Joy of Cooking, Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, IN., 1967, p. 532.

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