How to use herbs

Busy with other things, DonQui has been a bit lax of late when it comes to his writing. Never mind — his hooves are once again tapping the keyboard.

Recently he had the delightful experience of spending a day at Jekka’s Herb Farm just outside Bristol.


Jekka McVicar is the Herb Guru of the UK. Her many acolytes include Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal. DonQui can now also be counted amongst their number having completed Jekka’s How to Use Herbs masterclass.

DonQui loves his herbs especially those from the Lamiaceae family which includes thyme, rosemary, mint, basil and oregano amongst others. Until now he did not know that much about them and his attempts to grow various herbs have been rather hit and miss. Now he knows much more although the paradox of knowledge is that the more he learns the more he realises just how much more there is still to learn.


So what did he learn?

In no particular order the things that stand out most for DonQui are:


In the West we use the wrong part of lemongrass. In many parts of Asia it is the leaves which are prized, not the stalks. The stalks are exported to the West and the leaves are used at home. DonQui therefore purchased a lemongrass plant so he can start experimenting with the leaves.

Rosemary has been proven to improve memory. This is a good thing to know as DonQui is hopelessly forgetful. This is not just down to his ageing brain — he has always been that way. When he was a young colt his father once told him that it was a good thing his head was screwed on as otherwise he would forget it.

Oregano (and marjoram) is good for stomach upset and indigestion while fennel seed can prevent heartburn. This is why fennel seeds are a key component of Mukhwas, an Indian after-meal digestive. Mint is also a natural digestive and helps to calm the gut. A glass or two of fresh mint tea after a meal is probably a much better bet than DonQui’s usual espresso!

Aniseed, tarragon and fennel seeds help to break down cholesterol. DonQui is rather fond of cream sauce with tarragon (with fish and chicken breast). Now he knows that the tarragon not only adds to the taste — it also helps his body deal with the cholesterol overdose.

Garlic helps to reduce blood pressure — something DonQui needs to do. He also learned that the little shoot in the middle of the bulb (often slightly greenish) can taste bitter in old garlic. It can easily be removed by splitting the clove length-wise down the centre before slicing or crushing.


The flowers of most herbs are not only edible but they pack a fabulous flavour punch. They do loose their taste in cooking so use them in a salad or by sprinkling over a dish after cooking. After flowering the herbs should be cut back,

It is incredibly simple to create a herb infusion. Simply pour boiled (but not boiling) water over a sprig of your favourite herb to make a refreshing tea which can also be kept to drink cold. DonQui hopes that the occasional Rosemary infusion may help him to remember where he left his keys, or his phone, or his wallet.


With over 300 culinary herbs, Jekka’s Herb Farm is the largest single collection in the UK. Delivered with dry humour by Jekka and her two adult children, the masterclass was as fun as it was informative. There was plenty of opportunity to create and try various concoctions and decoctions as well as a lovely lunch which showed off the use of many of the herbs.

DonQui highly recommends taking a class or just visiting on one of the open days. Be advised that classes fill up almost as soon as they are advertised. It took DonQui almost a year to secure a place which he got off a waiting list. It is worth persevering!


Magic Garden Carpet


Getting his vegetable plot ready for planting is not one of DonQui Oaty’s favourite tasks. This is especially true if he has done nothing over the winter or early spring and let the weeds and grasses take over his allotment.

Fortunately he has learned a trick. This is to leave one plot fallow for a year with an old carpet covering it. Today he takes up the carpet he put down last year, exposing a weed-free plot. He moves it over to the next weed infested plot where he grew his beans last year. There it will remain and the weeds will bother him no more.


The newly covered plot on the left of the photo will remain that way until spring next year – weed and hassle free!  The newly uncovered one on the right will be home to this years’ crop of beans


Bags of Beans

Those of you who have been following DonQui’s adventures will know that he has been away from the home paddock quite a bit over the past few months. Home again now, he trots up to the allotment to see how things are doing. One of the problems with going away in the Spring or Summer months is that when he comes back he often finds the allotment overgrown with weeds and that he has missed some of his favourite produce.

beans allot general

Not so this year. He spaced his trips away to leave short weeding and harvesting gaps in between. He got the best of the soft fruits earlier in the summer.

beans soft fruit

Now that the strawberries and raspberries are over but the blackberries and blueberries are just starting to come into their own.

beans allotment

Beans are some of DonQui’s favourite vegetables and they do consistently well on his little plot. Earlier in the year he had some trouble with aphids on the broad beans. A tip from a veteran gardener helped DonQui to deal with them. Snip off the tips of the bean stalks and spray the little blighters with a highly diluted washing up liquid. This sorted them out and they never returned.

beans broad

After a very good harvest the broad beans are now finished and the dwarf French beans are producing a bumper crop. DonQui planted several varieties and he is glad that he did as it spreads out the production. Some of the later ones are not quite ready yet while others are more than ready for harvest.

beans 1

DonQui likes his beans young and thin. So he does not like to delay harvesting them. This means, inevitably he ends up with far more than he can eat in one go. Fortunately beans freeze very well so this is what DonQui does, getting on with the job while the beans are freshly picked.

First he sorts them into two-portion piles of roughly equally thick beans.

Then he blanches them in boiling water. Just 45-60 seconds for the thin ones and around 2 mins for the thicker ones.

beans drain


Next, he drains them and plunges them into cold water. Iced water would be even better but DonQui does not have any ice to hand. This stops them from continuing cooking.

beans dry

He lays the drained beans on paper towels to dry, then puts them into freezer bags and into the freezer.

beans bag

They will be good right through the winter and into next Spring. When cooking the frozen beans he simply thaws them out then swishes them around with butter in a pan. This seems to be all they need and they are quite delicious.

beans lastHaving dealt with one huge pile of beans he goes back up to the allotment a few days later and this  is what he comes back with. The runner beans are starting to produce as are the purple French beans. The purple beans turn green when cooked and taste no different from the green ones.

Gooseberry Crumble

Returning from his travels in Spain, Italy and Tanzania, DonQui finds his allotment burgeoning with all sorts of delectable fruits and vegetables.


strawberry cropThe beans and kale are coming along nicely while the soft fruits are better than ever. Before he went away the strawberries produced an excellent crop. Now it is the time for the gooseberries and raspberries.


DonQui likes gooseberries – or ‘goosegogs‘ as his Mum used to call them. They bring coltish memories. As they are not often found in the shops these days he is happy to find a good crop waiting for him. A bit that on their own, gooseberries require a bit of cooking and added sugar to bring out their full potential so DonQui decided that a gooseberry crumble is in order.


To balance their tartness, DonQui decides to add some apple to the mix.

In the past whenever DonQui has made crumble the topping has tended to be rather soft and insipid. This time he takes a different approach and it works brilliantly, giving a nice crispy top to the fruit mixture.

Here is DonQui’s recipe. He apologises in advance for his vagueness on measurements but that is how he is. DonQui experiments and judges according to feel which makes it difficult to translate into a fail-safe recipe:

For the topping

a good slab of unsalted butter
a nice dollop of golden syrup (maple syrup would be a more expensive but excellent substitute)
about a table spoon of demerara sugar
a good scoop of jumbo oats
an equal sized scoop of plain flour
a sprinkling of chopped hazelnuts


Heat oven to 140C. Melt the syrup and butter together in a small saucepan.


Mix the dry ingredients into the melted butter mixture (away from the heat) and stir through well. You should be looking for a moderately dry crumbly constituency. If too wet add some more oats and flour

crumble mix

Spread the mixture over a baking sheet and cook for 5 mins at 140º until it starts to go golden, then mix about, turning it over, and cook for about 5 mins more until it starts to go crisp but not burning.

crumble baked

The crumble mix can be kept in the fridge for several days. The amount that DonQui made was good for two crumbles, the second one he made the following day using the left over topping mix. By the way this mix makes a rather delicious snack on its own.

For the fruit mixture
1 eating apple (don’t use a cooking apple as the whole point is to reduce the tartness)
lemon zest and a squeeze of lemon juice
a couple of tablespoons of golden caster sugar according to taste
A nice pile of gooseberries. You can add other soft fruits such as raspberries and currents to go along with the gooseberries. DonQui added a handful of raspberries and a couple of blackcurrants.
a teaspoon of arrowroot mixed with water

applePeel, core and chop the apples – throw them into a saucepan with a squeeze of lemon juice to stop them browning. Stir in the sugar and cook gently, covered, until the apple begins to soften.

Top and tail the gooseberries and add to the apple along with the lemon zest and any other soft fruits. Cook covered for 2-3 mins until they too begin to soften and leach juices but not to the point that they burst. Stir in the arrowroot and remove from the heat as soon as it begins to thicken. The fruit mixture can be kept in the fridge for a couple of days or it can be frozen for much later use.
crumble done

Tip the fruit into a baking dish and scatter the crumble mix on top. Bake for 10 mins until piping hot through. Serve with buckets of custard!

raspberrie crumble

The following day DonQui enhanced the leftovers with some raspberries for a second go at it.



The Earth’s Bounty

It would be no exaggeration to say that DonQui has been feeling utterly depressed and dejected since the results of the UK’s referendum to leave the EU. He knows he must pick himself up, dust himself off and get on with the business of living in the present even if he worries for the future.

DonQui depressed.jpg

The earth carries on producing without regard to politics so DonQui goes up to the allotment to do a bit of weeding to get his mind off the referendum and to sort things out after his week away in Spain.


He is amazed at the progress. The curly kale is ready for cropping and the strawberries are producing more fruit than ever before.

strawberry crop

DonQui only picks the ripest strawberries but the crop is overwhelming. There are as many or more which will be just as fully ripe tomorrow and the day after.

After a week in central Spain, about as far as it is possible to be away from the sea in that country, DonQui feels like having some fish for dinner. He also wants to use some of his maturing kale and decides that Salmon would go best.


He is rather proud of the result — Salmon baked with tarragon from the allotment (the tarragon that is, not the salmon) lemon, olive oil and white wine. This was simply put in the oven at 180º, covered with tin foil and baked for 20 minutes. The kale from his allotment was boiled for about 4 minutes and then drained and stirred with butter. Being young and tender the leaves did not need more than this. Later in the year the kale will need cooking longer. Other accompaniments were cherry tomatoes (also baked in the oven) and fine green beens.

strawberry desert

As for the strawberries they were for desert with lashings of cream and DonQui will have some of the rest for breakfast.

The English soil is still producing excellent results even if the electorate are not.

Food and Farming

So… DonQui is in a bit of an agricultural mood at the moment. Having whipped his allotment into shape he is in need of a few more things to plant. He is thinking of beans – they always seem to do well and the surplus can be easily frozen. A few more herbs might be in order too. He already has thyme, oregano, tarragon, parsley, coriander and chives but some basil would be nice and Duchess has her heart set on some mint. The latter is a problem since mint runs roots all over the place and could soon take over everything. Never mind, he will deal with that in due course. In the meantime he needs to decide where to go to pick up some more plants.

What’s this?

Darsham Nursuries

According to The Guardian newspaper the Darsham Nurseries,  just down the road, is on the list of the 100 best places to eat in England.

A nursery café one of the best places to eat in England? Normally all DonQui might expect in such a place is a stale piece of cake and some instant coffee – not for him!

Yet this information comes from a most trusted source so he decides to give it a try. After all he does need to buy some plants.

And what a delightful surprise it is!


Duchess is delighted with her ‘English Garden’ cocktail. Such things are not to DonQui’s taste but he can appreciate the fresh minty aroma while he sips on a good glass of Beaujolais.


The menu offers a tapas-style selection of modern European sharing plates in larger than expected portions.


DonQui particularly enjoys the seasonal grilled local asparagus with romesco and almonds. Romesco is a Catalan pepper based sauce from Tarragona and although DonQui did not sample this when he was in Tarragona he finds it quite delicious. The locally sourced  Blythburgh pork chop with apricots was simply divine although DonQui struggles to see it as a ‘small dish.’


Duchess’ favorite was the ‘garden greens’ (Swiss chard) with burnt lemon and goat’s cheese curd. It was slightly better presented that the picture above indicates but by the time DonQui got around to taking it Duchess had already tucked in!

One side dish DonQui had to order was radishes with butter and salt – a very simple French classic. As a very young colt DonQui remembers his grandfather raving about radis au beurre. He had fought at the Battle of the Somme in the First World War and radis au beurre was something he had acquired a taste for in the cafés behind the lines when he was away from the action. He even insisted that the French word for butter was aubeurre and no amount of DonQui’s primary school knowledge could convince him that the ‘au’ was not an integral part of the word. “I was in France and I know,” was his emphatic reply and that was that.

The meal was utterly delicious, finished off with a heavenly concoction of creamy cheese over fine phyllo pastry with honey and nuts. It was billed as a ‘cheese cake’ but the name did not do it justice. DonQui is not a great fan of traditional cheese cake and this was anything but.


And yes DonQui did pick up some mint which is now awaiting re-planting. The nursery did not have any beans but in light of the most delicious lunch he really does not mind.


Working the Fields

On a nice warm sunny day DonQui finds rousing himself to do any work on his allotment quite difficult.


He would much rather put his hooves up and soak up some rays by the beach. Then again when it is wet, cold and miserable outside, DonQui is even less likely to go out to work in the fields. It is a wonder that anything actually gets done at all.


Somehow DonQui manages to put thoughts of the beach behind him, picks up spade, fork, hoe and assorted other instruments of destruction, and heads off to the allotment.

strawberriesHe thinks the strawberries are coming along nicely and he looks forward to the crop. His reward is, however, not limited to thoughts of good fresh fruit and vegetables to come. There is great therapeutic satisfaction to be had digging around in the dirt.

blackbirdEspecially when a fearless, friendly blackbird comes along to help and steal a few worms.