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- Fresh or dried?
- Let's start with herbs. There's no doubt that you'll get best results using fresh basil growing on the windowsill. If you have chives in the garden, or bay tree, pick your leaves fresh. But do you have a pot of basil or a bay tree? Are your chives in season?
Dried herbs are nearly as good as fresh, and they're much more convenient. Open your cupboard, and there you are: mint, oregano, marjoram—whatever your recipe or your creativity calls for.
Of course, you won't have any fresh curry leaves unless you live in the tropics. If you need Italian mixed herbs, you can blend them yourself ... but it's easier to shake them ready-mixed from a jar.
How about spices? You can grow garlic, or some chillies, yourself. But not pepper. Nor cloves. Most spices have been harvested in the far east. They have been prepared: milled perhaps, or blended. Grind your own peppercorns or nutmeg, but could you prepare your own cinnamon?
I suggest you grow your favourite herbs, and use them fresh in season. They are a joy to grow and harvest as well as to eat. Carry a stock of everything else in your kitchen drawer, and have the world's wonderful flavours at your fingertips.
- How long should I keep them?
- Chefs advise you to buy little and often, because spices lose their savour over time. And that's true.
But like everything else, it all depends...
There are four enemies at work here: light, heat, damp and time.
Little glass jars on a shelf near the cooker look great: but their contents will be useless in weeks: too much light, too hot, too steamy.
If you keep spices dark, cool and dry, you'll get many months' value from them. They've already survived storage and shipping round the globe—once upon a time, that meant by camel via Samarkand. Properly cared for, spices have a very long shelf life.
Herbs, once dried, are much the same.
- What should I keep them in?
- A glass or transparent plastic jar is good, because you can see what you've got (though avoid plastic for cloves—they'll rot it. Turmeric, too). It must have a sealed lid to keep the contents dry, and it must live out of the light.
An opaque container like a tin will keep the light out (but those clip-top cardboard tubes are not airtight and will not keep your spices dry).
Keep spices away from heat: the sun on a windowsill will ruin them.
I keep mine in sealed glass pots, in a kitchen drawer, away from the heat. Oh, and a label is useful so you can tell your pepper from your ground allspice!
* If you've visited my shop, you'll know that my spices are on display in plastic jars. So am I talking nonsense? Not at all. My jars are big. Only the grains right beside the jar wall see the light—99.9% of the spice, inside where it can't be seen, is dark! And my stock is constantly being replenished, so the small quantity you can see is exposed for a very short time.
We're always learning!
We're delighted to receive questions, comments, criticisms, suggestions and requests. We don't know all there is to know about herbs and spices, but we'll be glad to help if we can.
We always want to increase our knowledge, so if you have any information you'd like to share, please get in touch.
You can email me at: gillian@
com or call 01326 554330.