One of my very first knock-you-over moments in gardening came when I went to visit a gorgeous house in the Cotswolds.
It belonged to the Uncle of a cousin of mine, so we were lucky enough to have the run of this luscious piece of Lutyens, along with its garden, for a weekend. ‘Uncle’ wasn’t there, so we had a hilarious time dressing up in dusty old black-tie (there always seem to be random black-tie suits in the cupboards of spare bedrooms in grand houses). We found bowler hats, and walking sticks, and we took outrageous advantage of the butler (who, to be fair, had nothing to do) throwing a dinner party, and requesting breakfast in bed (shock horror)….
But I digress – the knock-me-over moment came when ‘Uncle’ returned, and he showed me the garden – quintessentially English…roses everywhere, bursting borders and buzzing bees, greenhouses chock full of fruit…and then, as we returned to the house, he pointed at a large pot, placed just outside the french doors leading to his office, and containing a rather straggly looking bush, proclaiming that this was his favourite plant in the world. I went closer, touched the leaves, which felt like a cat’s tongue, and as my hand came up to my face to tuck my hair behind my ears there it was, the most divine aroma, like an orchard of lemons, with a hit of bitter grapefruit and a faint floral note – so strong it took my breath away.
I have grown lemon verbena ever since, and I have given away more pots of it to friends than any other plant.
I have to say that it is the plant I use more than any other in the garden for the kitchen (with the exception of bay, parsley and thyme), and it is one of the most welcome sights when it comes up slowly in the border during the spring and summer months. If I had a greenhouse (and servants) I’d put it in an enormous pot (or four) and overwinter it indoors, having said servants bring it out again when the weather got milder. As it is, my plant dies down in winter and reappears with no special treatment at all, in late spring.
I use it as an air freshener (it’s great to freshen up a smelly car interior), and also in ice creams and drinks. The most useful thing is to make some syrup, which can be mixed to make any number of delicious drinks, ices and puddings. Here is a recipe from Mark Diacono’s new book ‘A Year at Otter Farm’.
200g caster sugar
a handful of lemon verbena leaves
Heat the sugar and water together, stirring, to get the sugar to dissolve, then throw the leaves in and simmer gently for ten minutes. Cool, strain and store the syrup in a fridge, or freeze it
…and of course, there must be ice cream….my method for ice-cream is non-churn.
Lemon Verbena Ice-Cream
1 loosely packed cup of lemon verbena leaves (or more if you want it extra-lemon verbena-esque)
The juice of one lemon
170g icing sugar
420ml double cream (yup, you read that right)
Put the leaves, lemon juice and sugar in a food processor and wizz up until they are chopped very finely. Leave this mixture alone for half an hour or so for the flavours to deepen.
Now whip the cream with 3 tablespoons of icy water until you get sumptuous soft peaks. Add in the lemon verbena mixture and whisk it in.
Then just turn the whole lot into a suitable piece of tupperware, and just bung it in the freezer. That is literally it. I have scattered some lemon verbena leaves, and pelargonium petals on top to make it gorgeous-er.