The mere existence of an herb like lovage gives me great hope and joy. Lovage is incredibly delicious, extremely versatile, grows better than a weed, and it’s beautiful, too. And lovage is, these days, almost unknown.
Lovage is a gorgeous perennial plant that appears first thing in the spring and grows five feet tall or more. It looks a lot like gigantic parsley and has flavor notes of celery, both of which are kissing cousins. In summer it bursts with umbrella-shaped bunches of tiny chartreuse flowers which become pretty green seeds. It grows prolifically until November, getting so tall that it sometimes needs to be staked.
The flavor of lovage is both familiar and exotic; mingling with the aforementioned celery flavors are notes of pine and warm curry. In fact, in its chemical make-up, lovage shares some essential oil components with curry leaf, rosemary, cardamom, oregano and savory. (The English insist that it’s got a hint of yeast, but then they would.)
How could such a great culinary ingredient escape fame? Even in its heyday, lovage seems to have been the wallflower at the ball. The Middle Ages were a great era for herb and spice lovers; seasonings were used with abandon on all foods, and lovage was a kitchen garden staple, but it was never among the favorites. This may be because lovage has a reputation for having an extremely potent flavor. I admit that my garden lovage, thriving from seedlings purchased out of curiosity, intimidated me for that very reason, at least until the year my parsley plants failed. Without a ready source of parsley I substituted lovage and fell in love—the leaves provided the fresh green note I sought and those mysterious spicy flavors gave familiar recipes a wonderful new aspect. In soups and stocks I began using the big green leaves instead of celery, and found it equally fantastic.
Emboldened, I’ve been making dishes where lovage takes center stage. I’ve made tabbouleh with lovage subbed for the parsley, and it was incredible. Pesto made with lovage instead of basil is great not only on pasta, but on potatoes, fish, white beans, stuffed under the skin of roast chicken, or mixed with cooked whole grains—even kids like it! (And of course, like all green herbs, lovage is a superfood—packed with phytonutrients!)
The great height of lovage is supported on strong, hollow stems, up to half an inch in diameter. Old books suggest that these stems are edible, but I’ve found them to be too fibrous to eat. Instead, they make fantastic straws through which to sip Bloody Marys or even lemonade. It’s said that the root is an edible vegetable, but since lovage is a perennial and returns every year, and mine hasn’t spread, I have not checked this out (if you have—do tell!). The seeds are sprightly and spicy; last winter we rolled bread dough in them and they created a yummy and crunchy crust.
Tuscans are fond of the pollen of fennel, another relative of lovage—this summer I’m going to collect lovage pollen and use it in a similar way—by sprinkling it on everything. Stay tuned. And you can always simply add finely shredded lovage leaves or flowers on mixed green salads for a taste twisteroo.
In the last couple of years, since my lovage consciousness has been raised, I’ve become aware of a faint but persistent lovage buzz. There are secret lovage lovers everywhere, so it seems. Queried at a dinner recently, every one of six guests chimed in with their devotion. Last summer, when I was giving a tasting at a farmers market, I subbed lovage for parsley in a recipe for Moroccan Carrots. I asked passers-by if they could guess the secret ingredient. Christoph Hitz, an illustrator living in Rosendale, took a nibble and replied, in a charming Swiss accent, “lovage!” My jaw dropped. Turns out that dried, powdered lovage was the main ingredient in a Swiss season salt called Maggi Chrut. Corinne Geib, a German native who works with many herbs to create her Immuneschein Elixirs and at her Immuneschein Tea Haus in Rosendale, told me that Maggi Chrut was once so popular that lovage became known as the Maggi herb.
The marvelous Corner Restaurant in the Tivoli Hotel offers a special of seared diver scallops sublimely finished with lovage shreds. Internationally, lovage pops up here and there among the cognoscenti—there’s Lovage Restaurant in Seattle that’s got a Lovage Asian Bowl, and Lovage Juice Kitchen in London at an Ace Hotel. Montana’s Duluth Grill is big on the herb and offers both Lovage Lemonade and Sanguine Maria, a cold tomato soup with lovage and black olives (I’m there!). There’s Lovage Bistro in Malta, the swanky Lovage catering company in San Francisco and Lavender and Lovage, an excellent cooking blog. Lettice and Lovage is a new off-off Broadway play starring Angela Landsberry. There’s even a rock band named Lovage—this trip-hop group’s only album, Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By, has videos with subway trains and men in bunny costumes, but, alas, no lovage.
These recent phenomena are signs that we may be reaching a critical mass on lovage love. Soon lovage may have the popularity that has unfairly eluded it! And if there’s a great herb like lovage that’s been hiding in plain sight, what other delectable delights might there be to discover? The world is our herb garden!
Tabbouleh, made with Lovage
½ cup bulgur wheat
3 tbs. olive oil
2 cups finely chopped lovage
½ cup finely chopped fresh mint
2 medium tomatoes cut into small dice (also great with soaked dried tomatoes)
1 medium cucumber, halved, seeded, cut into small dice
3 tbs. lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
In a heat-proof bowl, stir together the bulgur and 1 cup of boiling water. Cover tightly and let stand for 15 to 20 minutes, until tender. Drain and press the bulgur in a sieve, then toss it with the rest of the ingredients until well combined.
Maria Reidelbach is an artist, author and local food activist who lives, works and eats in Accord, NY. (firstname.lastname@example.org)