I love the word lovage – it sounds comforting and cosy, like my grandmother’s shawl. It’s one of those old-fashioned herbs that inexplicably isn’t sold in food shops. Luckily it’s a good-natured perennial that’s easy to grow and comes back year after year. It’s certainly a welcome sight in my herb garden, emerging as a tiny acid-green clump poking through the detritus of winter and signalling the start of spring. Before long, it shoots up into a magnificent towering shrub that develops flavoursome seeds in late summer and autumn.
The flavour of lovage is punchy but curiously hard to define. British chef Florence Knight likens it to freshly cut grass with an intense herbal flavour, similar to parsley or the inner leaves of celery. It’s also been described as a mix of yeast and Maggi soup; interestingly the Germans call it ‘Maggikraut’. To me it’s curry-like and faintly redolent of celery and vegetable stock – although more like Marigold powdered vegetable bouillon than Maggi stock cubes.
When cooking with lovage, there’s a temptation to use a generous handful of leaves, but bear in mind the strength of the flavour. The seeds are a far better bet – they have the same flavour as the leaves but are easier to measure in a judicious amount.
Gardeners who grow lovage will be able to harvest seeds in late summer and early autumn. Non-gardeners can occasionally find the seeds online or in shops that sell Indian groceries. Otherwise it’s fine to substitute celery seeds or ajwain seeds ¬– they have a similar flavour and are more widely available.
I like to use lovage seeds to brighten up a lack-lustre soup – they’re especially good with carrots or parsnips, for example. They also add interesting flavour to cheese scones or wholemeal bread dough. And they’re excellent fried with crumbs in a generous amount of butter and poured over cauliflower florets, as in my recipe for Pan-Fried Cauliflower with Lovage Crumbs and Lemon. Do give it a try and let me know what you think.
© Christine McFadden, March 2023