As the task lies before us of building a sustainable local food culture, let’s make that food taste as good as we can. Herbs and spices are high value crops that can be grown in small spaces all year long. They add extra value to food and are the foundation of a culinary culture, and, may I say, of culture itself. Let’s look at some that grow here, to whet our appetites, and then let’s get planting, growing, harvesting and cooking. The world is a place of delight. Let’s delight, I say!
1. Pansies (and violas, too)
Violas in Early Spring
Put them in lemonade, put them in a salad, add some spice or even some wintergreen. This is a spice for the heart, that makes you happy to be with your food, which, by the way, aids in digestion, and makes all food more valuable. And while we’re on flowers…
Dandelion and Its Consort
Hint: shake first.
This is another herb that makes the heart sing. Fantastic to brighten up a salad and what would look better in the centre of a strawberry shortcake or a stack of pancakes? Failing that, wine and syrup are made from this flower. With that, spring can be with you all year long, which is particularly splendid in the snow. Some dandelion wine, some wildflower honey, a bit of ginger and some canned peaches stirred on the back of the stove and then sipped from a mug in front of the window is my favourite way of welcoming in the winter. Remember: in its origins, food was medicinal; there was no distinction between food, cooking and medicine. The distinctions came later. For instance,
The second harvest is already 6 inches tall. Oregano comes back year after year after year. I like it before it goes to flower, but if you like the flowery way the Greeks do it, that’s easy, too. Don’t think of making marinara sauce, spaghetti sauce, grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches, pizza, or salads without this beauty on hand. It adds depth of taste. Originally, in Greece and Rome, in the day? A medicinal herb.
Oh, about those Greeks…
OK, look. It beats me why we import this stuff, when the stuff we can grow here has at least ten times the flavour. Look. You can almost see that flavour, right?
Greek Oregano Left, Harold’s Oregano Right
If there were a world spice championship, the Okanagan would win.
Sticking to the Mediterranean …
Cooking Without it is Poverty Itself
Even if you have to dry it is a kazillion* times better than the stuff in the spice rack at the grocery store.
*mathematically precise term
Sage and Her Rosemary Friend
It beats me why sage is traditionally used mainly for stuffing chickens. This fresh herb can do most anything you ask of it, including standing in for many other green herbs. It is perennial and prolific in the Okanagan. The cuisine that celebrates this herb is barely in its infancy.
Note, not this stuff:
Sagebrush and Her Aphid Control Expert
Okanagan sagebrush is not for eating, but the smell of it, crushed or steamed or smoked and filling a room, that is another matter.
Sunrise in the World of Marjoram
The most delicate of Mediterranean herbs is also under-used. A splendid addition to Middle-Eastern inspired dishes based around nuts, grains and lemon, mango or sumac. It thrives here. Once you let it go to flower, a little goes a long way.
The Spice with the Bad Rap
Long ignored because of the overpowering sweet, oily nature it takes on when dried and sold in little glass jars in the grocery store, the fresh herb is a pure delight. It thrives in the Okanagan. We could supply half the world.
Thyme Shaded by the Queen Anne’s Lace from the Sun
Because I like it sweet like that. If you want sharper time, let the sun rip at it! A perennial that requires almost water, and which comes in a myriad of flavours. Another under-utilized herb. Exquisite with scallops, for one thing.
It Comes in Purple, too (And Thai, and Lemon, and Cinnamon, and …)
The, um, cough cough, starving sage sparrows ate my first crop before moving up on the hill to scrounge up what they could of what they could find, so I reseeded.
It loves the summer heat around this place. Great commercial possibilities.
10. Pineapple Sage
New for Me, but it Sure Smells of Pineapple
I’m excited about what the summer will bring.
It beats me why all of these things aren’t grown in lush fields throughout the valley. After all, they are all very tolerant of drought and are the basis of any food industry.
11. Summer Savoury
Your Potato’s Best Friend
And soups. Oh my. Dries excellently, too.
I hope you’re getting the idea that there’s a whole unrealized industry here.
Another Victim of the Hungry Sparrows
Another chance to replant. I’m thinking mini-röstis with smoked trout and yoghurt. Poor apricot leaf. We mourn for her.
Move Over, Sugar Cane!
Imagine local food cultures weaned off of corporate sucrose and creating sweeteners without large inputs of land and water. I sure can.
I think it’s time for Canada to grow up and accept the fact that it is a country of some 200 global cultures and use that to make itself culturally rich, by building something together. Right now the orchardists of the Okanagan are asking for assured access to future water supplies and massive subsidies to maintain their crumbling industry … none of that is necessary. It is time, as I say, to grow up and use our water, earth and sun, here where the desert threads into the mountains, to finally move into this land.
14. Coriander (and Cilantro)
This is my pest control in the tomatoes. Works like a charm, by attracting wasps, which take care of the crawling nibblers that want the whole wide world.
When young, it is cilantro. Once it goes to flower, the flowers are a good cilantro substitute, but subtler in flavour. Once it goes to seed, voilà, coriander. In between, it keeps the garden healthy, and looks real fine. There is no reason not to grow this stuff year round.
Not Just for Mint Sauce
Exquisite in soups and stews, with lamb, in tea, with coffee and hot chocolate, on cream cakes and so much more. So many gardeners rip this stuff out because it spreads. Spread on, I say. In the Yakima Valley, men grow this stuff in vast fields and harvest it like hay. We can do so much better. The oils from fresh mint make even the eyes sing.
16. Chocolate Mint
17. Orange Mint
Can you tell I like mint? There are so many more. Our wild spearmint is exquisite. Apple mint is the tenderest thing imaginable, and, um … do you have one of these?
They love to come out at night and sit on the warm concrete and eat blue bottom flies.
If so, look. You might also have one of these staring at it, for hours on end, waiting for it to blink. Hey, it happens.
Chuck Enjoying a Confined Space, Back in the Day
He stared down many a toad in his time. Blessings on you, my friend.
If so, do your friend a favour and plant some of this…
Catnip and Its Flowery Friends
Around this house, I call this a lawn.
Happiness will follow. Or, just zonkedness.*
*psychologically precise term.
Chuck and his Brother Kitty Cat After a Nip
Hey, it beats staring at toads. And as far as catnip goes, this Okanagan bud is mighty popular with the feline set. Come on, be a pal. Oh, and you can make a relaxing tea out of it too.
Excellent for spring flavours and green sauces. Perennial. Beloved of bees.
You can use the roots too, in stews.
A very versatile herb, and if you haven’t stuffed chicken with it, or made a cream sauce for potatoes with it, or in any other way discovered your inner Dane, well, off you go!
We buy this from Mexico. Let me put that another way: we buy this from Mexico? Here’s an idea: let’s stop being a colony.
Pine Tree Shedding its Pollen When Whacked by a Stick in the Spring
Sure, the stuff makes people with allergies go ballistic, but, really, bees collect it and beekeepers sell it as a herbal remedy. What’s more, saffron is crocus pollen, and fennel pollen now goes for a very high price indeed. A world of pollen as a spice is wide open for us (including fennel and saffron). What’s more, this is a new culinary adventure … and we can be in on the beginning of it. So, shake a tree, I say …
22. Desert Parsley
Why Not Eat the Syilx Way?
Hey, it has worked around here since the glaciers melted away. The desert parsley down here in the valley withered away in the heat months ago, but up in the hills, ah, it’s just coming in now. No water required.
Because You Can Cook With it Too
These are Called Weeds
Actually, this is a hayfield owned by a man who just wants to use it as a tax dodge. Ergo: no hay.
If wild mustard can grow here, so can domestic mustard. It doesn’t make sense that most of the world’s mustard grows on the Canadian prairies, from which it is shipped to France, made into Dijon, and shipped back in little jars.
Chamomile thrives here and easily goes native.
Why are we importing our night time teas from California and Germany? Think how happy we could make these wild pollen-gathering beetles, too! Oh, and don’t forget …
Make Yourself Happy Too!
(Your blog, bringing home the mint!)
So, that’s 25. We could expand the list to a hundred or more. We could give this stuff to our chefs, and they could make this a world culinary capital. In the colonial model, the valley was sold to the English as a Garden of Eden, where they could grow apples and apricots and make jams for English tables, and live a life of genteel ease. Now that we’ve grown up, and now that other colonial outposts have put us out of the apple business, we can start cooking for ourselves. It has, after all, been a bit more than a century in coming. This is an agriculture we can all get excited about. Besides, you get to play in your kitchen, too…
Alfalfa Blossom Tea Trials
Around here, my wife never knows what to expect on the table when she comes home from work!