Use lovage to put oomph into your meatless Mondays! The strong, meaty taste of its leaves is a delicious base for soup, stews, tomato-based sauces and stock. A little goes a long way.
Lovage (Levisticum officinale) is a lesser known Mediterranean herb that is also underrated. That may be because it looks like a larger version of celery and also has something of the celery taste. On better acquaintance you will find that the leaves have a far stronger flavour and, like bay leaves, add depth to slow cooked food.
It is also a digestive herb, aids slimming by reducing water retention, is a natural salt substitute, and even benefits nearby plants by acting as a natural plant tonic. Every part of the plant is useful.
Lovage needs space, being a hardy perennial that can grow into a large leafy bush, 2m high and 1m wide. It is an attractive plant with glossy, green serrated leaves and yellow-green lacy flowers in summer. A big plus is that it can grow in partial shade, which many other herbs don’t like. In very cold areas it may die down in winter but will come up again in spring.
Lovage likes…deep, rich soil that drains well. Before planting, loosen the soil to a depth of 60cm and add plenty of well rotted compost. Water two to three times a week during summer, especially in extreme heat.
Plant in a large container and keep its size under control through regular clipping. Feed monthly with a liquid fertiliser and don’t allow the container to dry out. Keep it in a sunny, sheltered area in winter.
Tip for veggie growers
All plants benefit from growing alongside lovage, especially beans, brinjals, chillies, peppers and garden peas. Its small yellow flowers attract many insects that are beneficial to the garden.
Love the leaves
You will soon find lovage to be an indispensible culinary herb. Its rich flavour reduces the need for salt.
• Add fresh chopped leaves (and a few succulent stalks) to soup, meaty stews, fish, chicken and when making vegetable stock. Use small amounts because of the strong flavour. It can be added at the beginning or end of cooking, depending on the depth of flavour you require.
• Finely chopped young leaves are delicious in salad. Young shoots, 10 to 12cm long can be used like celery.
• Young stems and leaves can even be eaten as a vegetable. Cook as you would spinach. Boil uncovered in salted water until tender and mix into a white sauce.
Other ways to use lovage leaves
Lovage leaf tea helps to reduce water retention and ease digestive problems like flatulence and colic. Word of warning: people who are pregnant or have kidney problems should not use lovage.
Lovage leaves deodorise shoes and help revive weary feet. A traveller’s remedy from the middle ages!
Preserve the excess by drying the leaves, preserving them in vinegar, or chopping them up and freezing them in ice cubes with water. When needed, drop the ice cube into the pot.
Seeds and roots
Gather seeds in late autumn and dry them for cooking and medicinally. Put the seeds in muslin bags for use in soups and stews or sprinkle them on rice, salads and mashed potatoes. Add to herb breads and biscuits.
An infusion (tea) of the seed can be used to treat indigestion, colic and flatulence. It is also sufficiently diuretic and anti-microbial to be taken for urinary tract complaints.
Lovage seeds steeped in brandy are a traditional remedy for an upset stomach.
Skin young roots (to remove the bitter taste) and add to stews or boil and serve with French dressing. Older roots can be made into a decoction and added to the bathwater to help ease skin problems.
Did you know: In bygone times, the dried roots and seeds used to be ground and used instead of pepper to season meat as well as broth. It was relished for its hot, sharp, biting taste.
Getting the most out of your plant
• Encourage new shoots by clipping the plant in summer
• Don’t allow the plant to flower because the leaves become bitter.
• Should you want to save the seed, harvest the leaves in early summer before it flowers
• Harvest seed in autumn
• Divide established plants in autumn or spring, but make sure that each section of root has some new buds showing.
Herb project – Meatless Monday Lovage soup
This recipe from Jekka McVicar is a creamy soup that can be served hot or cold.
25 g butter;
2 onions finely chopped,
500 g potatoes diced,
4 tbs chopped lovage leaves,
850 ml chicken or vegetable stock,
300 ml milk of 1 cup cream, grated nutmeg, seasoning.
Sauté onions and potatoes in butter for about five minutes then add lovage leaves and cook for one minute. Pour in stock, seasoning and simmer until the potatoes are soft. Puree the mixture in a blender and return to a clean pot. Stir in the milk or cream, add a pinch of nutmeg, and heat but don’t boil or it will curdle. Check seasoning and serve with chopped lovage leaves for garnish.