Herbs are a great way of providing sustainable food for home or work

Jilly Dougan who oversaw the installation of the new rooftop garden at the Europa Hotel.
Jilly Dougan who oversaw the installation of the new rooftop garden at the Europa Hotel.

Last summer I planted two herbs in my garden – a lovage plant and a herb fennel. I nurtured them, watered them, talked to them and generally encouraged their growth.

I felt the pride of a parent as they soared up and was devastated to find a slug as fat as a cat, crawling up the lovage plant, having demolished all the leaves in its wake.

Apparently coffee grounds are the answer, sprinkled around the roots. I was doing this when a friend called round and she reported that I was breaking the law according to European regulations. I kid you not and she was right. The coffee grounds are still there to be honest (very awkward to remove from a flower bed).

However, if my column doesn’t appear any week soon, you’ll know I’ve been detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, in the style of Deirdre Barlow on Coronation Street, and will expect a full “free the Aghadowey One” campaign!

My friend Jilly Dougan is my go to herb growing guru. She’s been responsible recently for putting herb gardens in all of the Hasting’s Group hotels, including one on the roof of the Europa in Belfast and other restaurants including Fontana in Holywood.

At the square around the Mac theatre in Belfast, she’s put in herb boxes to provide for the restaurants in the enclosed area. I pay a fortune for pea shoots and love their flavour. Jilly grows them, not from expensive seeds, but from dried marrow fat peas and they’re ready for consumption after being sown for three-four weeks. She also recommends going out at night with a torch to pick off the slugs – you’ll not be breaking the law this way!

Herbs growing in public areas not only adds beauty and fragrance to an area but is a sustainable way of providing food for businesses. The same can be said for the home cook – when you snip herbs, they’ll grow back within days.

You don’t need a lot of tools or equipment. According to Jilly “your hands are the most valuable tool you have!” If you grow in containers a hand fork is useful, as are gloves. You can buy seed trays but she also uses recycled plastic tubs with holes pressed into the bottom.

On a recent trip to America, the college I was working in, had an urban cultivator. This UV lit cabinet grew micro herbs like pea shoots, mustard leaves, mizuna and edible flowers, in a class room, when it was minus 15 outside. Growing your own herbs at home adds pizazz to your cooking and makes good economic sense. Jilly can be contacted on jillydougan@hotmail.com.

Growing your own herbs also gives you accessibility to unusual herbs like hyssop, which is great with roast pork, a variety of mints like chocolate mint and pineapple mint, lovage, a celery like herb that’s lovely with tomatoes, and melissa, also known as lemon balm. My mother has a flourishing melissa herb that stands up to my regular pillaging expeditions. It’s fresh lemon fragrance is great in cheesecake or to infuse in a lemon crème brulee. These are flavours you can’t buy in the supermarket and when you grow them they’re free – a win win situation.

The first recipe this week is for salmon roasted with herbs. The herb topping flavours and protects the salmon. Roasting salmon rather than traditionally poaching it brings out the maximum flavour. Poaching chicken has fallen out of flavour in recent times but it’s a delicious way of cooking especially with the addition of herb stalks, aromatic vegetables and vinegar.Here the basil stalks are used in the poaching liquor and the leaves for a zippy dressing.

This week I’ll be in the Saintfield Eurospar on Tuesday from three-five demonstrating recipes.