The Maltings, Oulton Street; For the ” Real Good Life” series; For:EDP Sunday; Copy:Keith

In order to create one of those generous, comforting family lunches that can override a chilly Sunday, our Rayburn was stoked up last week in order to serve the dual purpose of warming a cool kitchen, whilst simultaneously establishing a hot oven. All was completed in time to welcome the drizzle-laden North Sea wind that had arrived to lash our windows for the remaining day.

Following on from an earlier runaway success in the Irish Stew department, and consolidating a number of triumphant vegetable combinations known in France as Pot au Feu, I was determined to build a warming cauldron of Welsh Cawl. The Cawl (pronounced like Simon’s surname in ITV’s X Factor) is a traditional dish that utilises inexpensive but tasty meat cuts and an array of seasonal vegetables, all bound by a fresh, clear simmering broth. One common Autumnal thread is that all of these dishes cook over heat rather than within it, emanating from a style of cooking that predates the modern roasting oven.

Brian, our local butcher in Aylsham, often has to tolerate my bewildering descriptions of unusual meat cuts on my frequent exploratory visits. I blame it on my upbringing as part of the ‘supermarket generation’ I guess, where skilled butchery, like animal welfare, is often hidden from the customer’s perception. On this occasion Brian was well ahead of me, the piece of rolled bacon collar I requested was produced and trussed in a heartbeat, and I only stumbled when pretending to know what middle-neck of lamb was meant to look like on a butcher’s slab. He knew, and that’s all that mattered on the day.

With a considerable amount of meat for what turned out to be a fairly modest sum of money, I returned home to fathom out, in the privacy of my own kitchen, why scrag end is really the neck, and middle-neck has got ribs. Notwithstanding my puzzlement, the taste was later to prove delicious.

The remaining ingredients were collected from the raised beds early Sunday morning, with celery, carrots, onion, turnips, leeks, potatoes, cabbage and the last of the borlotti beans, Thereby turning one corner of the kitchen worktop into a tableau worthy of our local harvest festival. The dish itself is cooked in two parts, firstly with meat, onion and carrot to create the stock over two to three hours, then after flaking the meat and draining the liquid, the second stage is undertaken. This amalgamates all the flavours and gently introduces the remaining vegetables one by one to maintain the fresh crisp taste of each, with finely sliced cabbage becoming the final addition. Served with a topping of crumbly white cheese alongside crisp sourdough bread, this was a weather beater if ever there was one.

It sounds a little complicated but washing vegetables was probably the lengthiest chore, with one notable exception, and that was the most important of today’s cooking aids – the collection of herbs for a fresh bouquet garni. A tour of the raised beds for the constituent parts of my herbal infusion is just as exciting as digging up perfect Pink Fir potatoes or dumpy French carrots, I am still in awe that this stuff appears at all, given my evident horticultural shortcomings!

I needed to select fresh un-wooded shoots of thyme, dark, glossy leaves from the bay plant, now rapidly approaching tree-hood, a sprig of light green oregano and a mixture of curly and flat leaved parsley that have mutually flourished way beyond expectation. These were all tied together using chives as a binding agent, an edible ‘string’ if you like. This was a dish that moved from cheap cuts, sourced at local farms, to a majestic International casserole, mainly due to the integration of freshly selected herbs.

Just as flint can form across layers of primordial silt and unify differing time zones, so the use of herbs in cooking can link one civilisation to the next. Herbs are the seam that can cross continents, combine disparate ingredients and exemplify a nation’s culinary heritage. In a blind tasting they can illuminate an individual cooking style before the principal ingredients even emerge, think of coriander in Thai soup or basil in an Italian tomato salad for example. Today I was thinking Thyme in a Gallic broth. If you have ever eaten a fresh sprig of blue or silver thyme, you will know how powerful its flavour can be. It can adequately support a particular cooking style or, at the drop of a hat, can dominate it. Herbs I have discovered can be the benchmark taste in so many dishes around the world.

All well and good I say to myself, but I didn’t start from here. My earliest memories of herbs, growing up in my parent’s household, were of miniature jars on a rack in the scullery. All jars looked to contain a similar assortment of khaki flakes in spite of optimistic indications of a glamorous world beyond, now barely legible on their faded labels. I have only fleeting memories of fresh herbs, or herb to be more accurate, and that is the lonesome bunch of parsley that periodically appeared after a visit to the fishmongers. Just for once I must tip my cap to a nemesis here, those all-powerful supermarkets and their constant supply of herbs today are a far cry from my parent’s distant expectations, although they need not be a substitute for your own inexpensive, door-side pot of fresh leaves. As a boy I remember being dragged through the streets of west London, whilst my parents conducted the weekly shop. I recall butchers, grocers and bakers, all as independent merchants then, with their easy and open display of food that would give a health and safety inspector nothing short of a cardiac arrest these days. At the ‘wet’ fish shop, (I never did get told what a ‘dry’ fish shop was), I would stare at a theatrical display of the ocean’s bounty, disported over ice blocks the size of shoe boxes with the occasional humorous addition of a cigarette tucked into the mouth of an upright skate or a boiled crab gripping the fishmonger’s spare pencil.

What separated the rainbow presentation of white, pink and blue flesh was the nuclear green colour of bonsai hedges made entirely of parsley. This was the only herb in town, as urban greengrocers did not appear to stock the stuff and supermarkets were yet to introduce the now popular, ‘pot grown’ varieties. If you bought a fish, you automatically got a free handful of Parsley, arcane but charming. I guess that Parsley sauce was the inevitable and only outcome back then, although my memory goes conveniently blank at this point.

Whether you are a recipe book junkie like me, a Good Food Channel addict, or just a quiet kitchen cook trying to build traditional dishes from the finest of ingredients; fresh herbs are now essential components of all styles of cooking. I cannot think of a dish I have cooked over these last few months, that has not only taken advantage of my random herb planting, but has begun to help me understand and celebrate their seminal role in authentic cooking. When I first laid out the garden, herbs were regarded as a necessity, although at the time I was unaware of their future potency in my varied cuisine. After consultation with my helpful seed merchant, I knew what varieties I could locate and hopefully cultivate. What I hadn’t envisaged was the journey to full, herb enlightenment that could be achieved with a little effort and a modest space.

In any garden that is destined to support exciting cooking, I realised that understanding the distinct taste of each plant is as vital as the ownership of a good spade or the constant supply of well-rotted manure. My evening classes in herbs were lacking, and the first port of call were some cranky but helpful books dealing with Mediterranean cuisine, my later discovery of Skye Gingell’s A Year in my Kitchen was a revelation thereafter.

The idea that herbs could be naturally split into two distinct categories was a good start. To isolate herbs that could withstand casserole and slow cooked-dishes, from those that highlight a dish with fresh piquancy and spirited flavours, was a helpful rule of thumb when planting. In the former category are those work-horses of the herb garden; Thyme, Sage, Rosemary, Bay and Lovage, all apparently willing to hunker down over Winter as well as offering a lengthy season of rich, comforting provision.

In the category marked excitement and frivolity came the fresh smells and tastes of summer herbs. Here one could span continents and cultures with Coriander, Basil, Chervil, Chives and Rocket whilst celebrating the very best of traditional British cuisine with endless varieties of Mint and Parsley. Alongside Parsley, as the only other dual functioning herb in that it cooks well within a dish, yet tears well into salads, is Tarragon. Once I had established that French Tarragon, not Russian, was the one to plant, aniseed infused sauces and dressings have become commonplace.

One herb inspired dish, reminiscent of Autumn days spent in post-harvest vineyards in Provence, is the formerly ubiquitous omelette. With the luxury of reaching into the back of our chicken coup and discovering our daily quota of warm eggs with one hand, and firmly gripping a fistful of freshly picked herbs with the other, that French classic for all and every occasion has now been perfected. We consume a lot of Omelette Fines Herbes. I make a six egg version for two to three people at least twice a week now, even if there is no-one else at home on occasions. “A sturdy body makes a sturdy gardener” they tell me, I hope they are right, apart from boiling or poaching, I have yet to perfect the art of a one egg dish I fear.

To make an authentic Herb Omelette finely chop a tablespoon each of Chervil, Parsley, Tarragon and Chives. Mix half of this with salt and pepper and add to the gently whisked eggs. Once cooking in your buttered pan is near completion, sprinkle over the remaining chopped herbs before folding the omelette onto a warm plate. With the optional addition of finely grated Gruyere cheese, crusty bread and a couple of glasses of refreshing Viognier, from the Langeudoc, lunch couldn’t look fresher or taste more straightforward. If you try the dish in the evening, with a good Beaujolais Cru chilled for thirty minutes only, you will discover a robust and fulfilling supper created from the most modest and unexpected of ingredients.