When a friend visited a family-owned pesto company in Italy, he was dazzled by the enormity of the perfumed fields of basil that stretched to the horizon, a treat for the nose and equally arresting to the eye.
He was intrigued by the firm waxiness of the leaves, which released their scent at the gentlest of rubs between fingers – a far cry from the paper-thin leaves here, which blacken and bruise at the merest whisper of a touch.
Those fields are a world away from the modest herb patch at our kitchen door. Although tiny, it provides useful bunches of earthy sage, oniony chives, sparkling mint, pine-like rosemary and fragrant, aromatic thyme – perhaps my favourite were I pushed to choose.
The patch also provides a reminder that throughout summer, herbs are at their peak. You can pick them up at supermarkets at any time of year, but using them now means enjoying them at their finest.
Aromas and flavours are often most exciting when herbs are combined: a salad tossed with fronds of chervil, aniseedy tarragon and tangy chives is immediately complex and elegant; basil and tarragon were made for each other and for tomatoes; while coriander with basil instantly evokes the Far East.
Mint is overlooked too often, but wonderful with coriander in couscous, or with thyme and oregano for herb-crusted lamb. Always shred leaves at the last moment before wilting in sauces or over hot vegetables, so the scent and flavour remain pungent and fresh.
A summer salad of mixed tomatoes, goat's cheese and gem lettuce with chervil, tarragon and mint
A mix of heirloom tomatoes from a big deli or farmers market; otherwise a mix of plum, cherry, red and yellow tomatoes
Fresh-ground black pepper
2-3dsstsp mild olive oil
5g each of tarragon, chervil, and mint leaves picked from their stems
4 heads of little gem lettuce
4 heads of chicory
1-2dsstsp pitted black olives
100g soft goat's curd cheese
1 lemon, cut into wedges, seeds removed
1. Slice the tomatoes into wedges, slices or quarters according to their size and your preference, but a mix of shapes and sizes will give the salad visual interest. Place the tomatoes in a bowl and season them lightly with sea salt, pepper and a very small amount of sugar. Add half of the tarragon leaves and a small drizzle of olive oil all over, then set aside for a few minutes while you complete the rest of the salad.
2. Cut off the roots from the heads of little gem and tug the heads open so you can pull them apart into individual leaves. Discard any brown or damaged leaves and cut any oversized ones in two lengthways, then set aside. Now do the same with the chicory heads, cutting off the roots and tugging the leaves apart into individual pieces. Add these to the gem leaves.
3. Place the leaves in a large mixing bowl and add most of the rest of the leaves, reserving some for a final garnish. Add most of the olives then season with salt and pepper. Add olive oil and toss gently with two spoons to coat the leaves, then add the tomatoes and a squeeze of lemon juice and toss again. Divide between four serving dishes then add scoops of soft goat's curd cheese or crumbled goat's cheese. Scatter any remaining tomatoes so the different shapes and colours are visible, then scatter over the rest of the herbs. Serve at once.
Chilled soup of beetroot, creme fraiche, chives and dill
500g creme fraiche
750g cooked purple beetroot
2dsstsp chopped chives
1dsstsp chopped dill
1 cucumber, peeled
6 spring onions
A dash of sherry vinegar or white wine vinegar
2dsstsp creme fraiche, to finish
1. Place the creme fraiche in a large bowl and gradually whisk in the milk until it becomes a thick liquid. Now peel the beetroot – you may wish to wear rubber gloves so your fingers don't get stained. Dice the beetroot into an even but not perfect dice (they will be pureed later) of 1-1.5cm and place them in the bowl with the creme fraiche. Season lightly with salt and fresh-ground black pepper then add half of the chives and half of the dill. Stir well, and refrigerate for at least an hour.
2. Meanwhile, slice the cucumber in half lengthways and scrape out the seeds with a teaspoon. Now cut the portions in half again lengthways then cut across these long fingers to give small dice of about 1cm. Set aside for now.
3. Trim off the bases of the spring onions and remove any brown outer leaves. Slice in fine rounds and add to a bowl with the cucumber. Add the vinegar, season with salt then set aside for an hour.
4. Transfer the contents of the beetroot bowl to a blender and blitz to a fine puree or a coarse-textured soup, depending on preference. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then add the cucumber and spring onion mix. Divide between chilled bowls and scatter the remaining chives and dill on top. Add a small dollop of creme fraiche to the middle of each bowl and serve at once.
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