Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's lovage recipes

It's one of the most intriguing and versatile of herbs, yet when was the last time you saw it in a shop or even growing in someone's garden? Time to redress the balance …

Lovage, lettuce, pea and cucumber soup
Lovage, actually: When you've tasted this intriguing herb in the likes of this soup with lettuce, pea and cucumber, it's hard to work out why it isn't more popular. Photograph: Colin Campbell for the Guardian

You can toss its lively young leaves in salads or tuck them into the cavity of a chicken or fish before roasting; finely shredded, they are a great addition to soups, stews, mash or scrambled eggs; you can steam the stems, braise the roots and use the seeds in biscuits and bread – what's not to love about lovage?

The flavour is like parsley and celery combined with a hint of aniseed and curry. And if you think that sounds intriguing, you'd be right. So why aren't we all using it by the handful, and why is it virtually impossible to buy? And why doesn't it have a place in every veg plot? Mysterious questions to which there is no answer, except perhaps a shrug and, "Luck of the draw, I guess."

Today I'd like to redress the balance a bit. I want you to feel the lovage – give it a small corner of your garden, find it a place in your kitchen, and it might find a place in your heart.

Lovage has sturdy, hollow stems, leaves that look like large Italian flat-leaf parsley and greenish-yellow flowers that are followed by golden-brown seed pods. It's a member of the Umbelliferae family, which includes carrots, parsnips, parsley and celery. As suggested above, you can use the leaves as a punchy substitute for parsley or celery (the French call it céleri bâtard) – go easy at first because it's stronger than both, though the flavour mellows a bit in cooking.

Lovage is native to western Asia and the Mediterranean, and was admired by the ancient Greeks and Romans for its medicinal as well as for its culinary properties – it was believed to cure everything from rheumatism to sore throats and indigestion. Medieval travellers tucked the leaves into their shoes because of their antiseptic and deodorising properties. Charlemagne was so smitten, he ordered it to be grown in all of his gardens. As the name suggests, it was also thought to be an aphrodisiac (we also used to call it "love parsley").

So now I've sold you (I hope) on lovage, I should probably give you an idea of how to grow it, because you're not going to be able to get it from the corner shop. The first thing to know is that it's easy. Levisticum officinale is a hardy perennial herb that's simple to grow from seed – sow a few seeds in a tray or small pot and keep well watered on a sunny windowsill to germinate. Prick out and pot on when each plant is a few inches high. Easier still, buy a small pot of growing lovage (any decent garden centre should sell it), plant it out and grow it on. If you don't have a dedicated herb patch, it looks good in a flowerbed, too – 2m tall, lush, bold and shapely – in among the flowers. It also grows on very well in a large, deep pot. Plant out at any frost-free time from late spring to early autumn, and divide large plants in autumn or spring. Keep it clipped (easy, when you realise how useful it is in the kitchen) to encourage fresh new shoots and don't let it dry out – lovage is fairly thirsty. If you can't find seeds or plants, jekkasherbfarm.com sells both by mail-order.

Back to the kitchen, then. The green leaves, cut into fine ribbons, are very good with lightly cooked summer veg. Or add them, chopped, to salads or stuffings for pork or chicken, or to fish chowder, or to just-boiled new potatoes in a mustardy vinaigrette. Lovage is delicious with eggs, too – stir leaves into omelettes, scrambled egg or frittata. Tender young stems (from the centre of the plant) can be steamed and served as a side vegetable – lovely with a summer roast chicken.

You can even peel the large tap roots and use them in stews, or cook them as you would salsify. When the seeds start to turn brown, harvest them and use in place of celery seeds in pickling mixtures, breads or in savoury biscuits to go with cheese. You can even use the hollow stems as a peppery, tongue-tingling stirrer for bloody mary – and if that doesn't make you fall for this most lovely of herbs, I don't know what will.

Lovage, lettuce, pea and cucumber soup

A refreshing and pretty summer soup. Serves four.

20g butter
1 onion, finely diced
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
A few young lovage stalks, chopped
700ml chicken or vegetable stock
2 little gem lettuces, finely shredded
100g peas
½ cucumber, cut into 5mm dice
1 small handful lovage leaves, shredded
A few tablespoons of crème fraîche or thick yoghurt, to finish

Warm the butter in a large saucepan over a medium-low heat. Add the onion, thyme and a pinch of salt, and sauté until the onion is soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the lovage stalks and sauté for a couple of minutes. Pour in the stock and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the rest of the veg (keep back some lovage leaves to garnish) and simmer for five minutes. Season and serve with dollops of crème fraîche and a scattering of lovage leaves.

Mackerel and lovage tarts

If you're short of time, this works well with bought puff. And make one big tart instead of six smaller ones, if you prefer. Serves six.

2 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, finely diced
2 bay leaves
3 soft lovage stems (about a stick of celery's worth), finely sliced
350g potatoes, peeled, cooked and cut into 2cm cubes
4 mackerel fillets, cooked, skinned and flaked
1 small handful lovage leaves, finely shredded, plus extra for serving
2 tbsp finely chopped dill fronds, plus extra for serving
3 tbsp crème fraîche
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the rough puff pastry
250g unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small cubes
500g plain flour
Pinch of salt
About 150ml iced water
1 egg, lightly beaten with 1 tsp of milk, for glazing
Freshly ground black pepper

First make the pastry. Toss the butter in the flour with the salt until coated, then add just enough water (you may not need it all) to bring it together into a fairly firm dough. Form this into a rectangular shape with your hands and, on a well-floured surface, roll it out in one direction, away from you, into a 1cm-thick rectangle. Fold the two short ends into the middle so they overlap, like folding a letter. Give the pastry a quarter turn, repeat the rolling out five more times, then wrap in cling-film. Rest in the fridge for an hour.

Heat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Put the oil in a frying pan over medium-low heat, add the onion and bay, and sauté gently until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the lovage stems, fry for a couple of minutes, then tip into a bowl with the potato, flaked fish, lovage leaves, dill and crème fraîche. Remove the bay, season and cool.

Roll the pastry into a rectangle about 35cm x 45cm. Cut into six smaller rectangles. Cut a 1cm strip from the edge of each and reserve. Place the rectangles on a large baking sheet lined with parchment, and lightly brush the edges with egg wash. Place the strips around the edges to make a border, and brush lightly with egg wash. Prick the bases of the tarts with a fork.

Bake for 15 minutes until they're starting to turn golden, remove from the oven and divide the filling between the tarts, piling it up quite high. Bake for five to 10 minutes until warmed through. Scatter over dill and lovage, and serve hot or warm.

Courgette and lovage pasta

A quick, easy dish. Serves four.

4 courgettes, about 400g
400g dried penne or fusilli
3 tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Zest of ½ small lemon
1 small handful lovage leaves, finely shredded
80g parmesan, grated, plus extra
160g ricotta, broken into chunks

Trim the tops and bottoms off the courgettes, then shred into ribbons with a sharp vegetable peeler.

Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat, add the courgettes, season and sauté until slightly golden, about five minutes. Add the garlic and lemon zest, and fry for a minute. Stir in the lovage. Taste and season again.

Drain the pasta (reserve some cooking water) and toss with the courgettes, a couple of tablespoons of cooking water, parmesan and ricotta. Serve in warmed bowls with more parmesan sprinkled on top.

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Comments in chronological order (Total 25 comments)

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  • nellyd

    25 June 2011 12:08AM

    Had lovage ice cream last week. Goes perfectly with a rich chocolate concoction. Got a big lovage plant in the garden so will need to experiment.

  • delanacaprina

    25 June 2011 1:08AM

    We grow it in a window box on our balcony. I use it in everything. It's great with eggs, fantastic in stews, marries beautifully with tomatoes and almost anything. In the autumn when it does back, I cut it down and freeze the stalks and use the leaves to make lovage salt. It's also extremely good macerated in triple sec/cointreau - the lovage when crushed releases an aroma which matches perfectly with the spirit. I got my plant from the garden centre for £1.50 about three years ago. This year it's grown back to be 6ft high and with lots of seed heads. Try it - you'll love it.

  • mitchellkiwi

    25 June 2011 1:12AM

    Called la livèche in French, I once had lovage soup at the home of relations of my wife, in a beautifully restored farmhouse near Rodez. The great-uncle had been an officer in the French army in Paris under Petain and Nazi occupation and had fled to Germany with the retreating German army, returning years later with a German wife and a son. He managed to wangle himself a promotion through old military mates to Colonel and hence a great pension, retiring to work for Galerie Lafayette and write books on economics. The guy was brilliant, but probably a Nazi. As for the soup, his wife was into some very peculiar eco-gardening to do with the waxing and waning of the moon and other esoteric imponderables, notably baking bread in her ancient brick oven which always turned out as hard as bricks. We were able to dip this into our lovage soup, so that the bread might be digestible. Now, imagine those flavours that Hugh describes, but in highly concentrated form and you will understand why, in spite of detailed explanation of the health advantages of this herb, I have steered clear of it ever since. Maybe it was the family history, or their weirdo lifestyle that rendered the soup so sour.

    Take my advice and use sparingly, expecially when combining with skeletons in the cupboard.

  • Sparebulb

    25 June 2011 1:13AM

    I have lovage, but in truth it’s a bit of a monster in a small garden, I’d stick it in a large pot and consider it a ‘mad herb’ as I call them, as you won’t use it as often as you must to keep it under control.

    I use most of mine of the compost heap as it goes mental during the growing season, one nice aspect is it attracts pollinating insects and the seeds are the best bit I think. For me it’s more a Spring or Autumn plant, I give it a haircut (number 2 all over) in late October so get the young growth early in the year, and at the end of the season I can make soup and stock as Lovage is something of a ‘season-all’ much like Summer Savoury that gives up the ghost around the same time (although the Savoury won’t be back as it’s an annual). I use the seeds in a Cajun style (by my mind) seasoning mix.

    Also, when the Lovage is established, it can help if you are growing other herbs such as Savoury and Parsley, also some salad crops- in its close proximity it will suck away moisture, but little more than 2 foot away it mainly supplies shade- in the right spot and with the right plants, it works well. You can grow a mix of herbs within one square metre with a bit of thought.

  • Elzadra

    25 June 2011 1:42AM

    I planted some lovage once and it aggressively took over the entire herb planter and tasted like six kinds of ass. I'm sticking to basil, coriander and parsley now.

  • PleaseSeeSense

    25 June 2011 2:10AM

    Try equal measures of Lovage cordial, dark navy rum, and port.

    Or even better... try equal measures of Pink Cloves Cordial, dark navy rum, and port.

  • JerryColebyWilliams

    25 June 2011 7:08AM

    I agree with sparebulb, lovage self-seeds promiscuously, especially in alkaline soils. It's quite invasive along stream banks in the Peak District.

    However, at 'Bellis', Brisbane's sustainable house & garden, I am delighted that mine survived the floods and heat of our last subtropical summer. With luck and due diligence it may flower and set seed.

    Thanks for the recipe suggestions. Look forward to some for Good King Henry, Chenopodium bonus-henricus, which I have just sown.

  • odboftheobscure

    25 June 2011 7:54AM

    It's much appreciated in Germany, appears in Apicius quite a bit. And the Indian spice aswain appears as 'lovage seed' on the packet but I don't know if this is correct.

  • Abbadon

    25 June 2011 8:23AM

    It is know as Maggikraut in Germany as it is the main ingredient in Maggi Sauce. This is the little bottle of black sauce often found in traditional restaurants in Germany and Switzerland. We have one plant in the garden and love it for its usability and how it looks in our herb corner.

  • benoneill

    25 June 2011 8:36AM

    Just like the Germans across the border, "we" Czechs use it a lot in soups. A typical boil up a good bit of beef bone (ribs are good) with root vegetables and add some noodles kind of thing always goes very well with Lovage.

  • adlad

    25 June 2011 8:37AM

    @ mitchellkiwi

    Take my advice and use sparingly, expecially when combining with skeletons in the cupboard.

    Seconded. My father-in-law made me some lovage tea once, with about a branch of leaves straight from the garden. I can still taste it now when I think about it. It's not good.

  • Sparebulb

    25 June 2011 12:13PM

    I am confused about the Maggi/ Lovage connection, I checked the ingredient list and it doesn’t mention lovage?

    Water, salt, wheat gluten, wheat, and less than 2% of wheat bran, sugar, acetic acid, artificial flavor, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, dextrose, caramel color.

    And that great organ of knowledge, the Wiki, says it contains no lovage.

    To be honest I’ve never understood Maggi seasoning and always believed it to be by-product of the German war effort. My wife is Polish, and so when we first met she used Maggi, now she does the right thing for the troops and uses Worcester Sauce or Soy Sauce which are proven, superior, products with no connection with Nestle or chemical warfare.

  • JuliaBtS

    25 June 2011 3:14PM

    The plant in my garden comes via my parents-in-law in Denmark where it is well known. Here it is impossible to find. I normally only ever use it with mint and sorrel to liven up a green salad, but courgette and lovage pasta sounds good.

  • PoorBoyDave

    25 June 2011 3:39PM

    I'm in France, and I can't remember seeing it. Sounds like it's worth looking for though

  • Azarel

    25 June 2011 5:48PM

    It's popular here in Romania too where it's called 'lustean'. It's great in soup and I love to make a mixture of cottage cheese, chopped up hard boiled egg, spring onion and lovage to go on a thick cut piece of fresh toast.

  • pixeletti

    25 June 2011 6:38PM

    Absolutely love lovage! I usually make cous cous and a tomato, veg and chick pea stew with lots of cumin and a sprig or two of lovage. Works brilliantly. A bit of a twist on a Moroccan theme.

    Every garden or patio should have at least one plant. Looks lovely in your borders too.

  • Estatesman

    25 June 2011 7:49PM

    If Oregano herb a peaceful world in these Thymes, we need Lovage.

    Lovage your brother-man.

    Parsley.

  • redshrink

    25 June 2011 8:48PM

    @Sparebulb

    I would say that you are very confused about Maggi, certainly. Neither the product nor the company were involved in the German war effort. Maggi is a Swiss company, taken over in 1947 by another Swiss company, Nestlé. The country that still loves salad cream and Bisto gravy hardly has a reason to be snooty about Maggi.

    And, no, Maggi sauce never contained lovage. Rather some people found the taste of lovage reminiscent of Maggi sauce and called the herb Maggi-Kraut.

    I do admire Britons for bringing up their country's finest hour, now about 70 years in the past, no matter what the occasion. But the Maggi/lovage connection really is stretching it a bit... Or may be it was Worcester Sauce what really won the war?

  • traveller55

    26 June 2011 6:10PM

    i made the soup today, as my lovage little plant has appreciated being put out into the garden border and has taken off. i used homemade chicken stock, and cut back a bit on the lovage like a gutless fool, so we ended up fighting over the garnish leaves......next time i'll use more lovage!
    followed by a piece of fish fried in egg and flour, squeeze of lemon, and what we call an 'eaton slightly messy' with homemade meringues, raspberries and strawberries, cream, the idea is if you want it mushed up you do it yourself. with a cold rose from the loire. bliss. thanks hugh. definitely going to try the mackerel & lovage tarts too.

  • BertieFox

    27 June 2011 12:03PM

    I've been growing it at the entrance to the polytunnel for as long as I can remember (well, eight years actually). I cut it down over an over again as it makes such a massive plant and it keeps coming back stronger than before.
    Never used it for anything, so I hope these recipes will give me the incentive to actually do something with it at last!

  • fuchsoid

    27 June 2011 1:51PM

    I can see why some people might not like the yeasty taste - it is a bit like Marmite.

    The plants are HUGE. I had to get rid of mine as it took up nearly half of my tiny garden and I only used it in white bean soup (where it is delicious), but having seen these recipes, I'm tempted to try it again. In a pot this time.

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