Sunday, 22 January 2012

In praise of my lovely Myrtle...

In the midst of Winter, whilst many herbs are resting, there is one game girl who rises again and again to the culinary occasion...

My lovely Myrtle bush in her evergreen glory, continues to grow and flourish and provide me with lots of spicy, aromatic leaves throughout the Winter. 

She is easy to grow and if her leaves do get any problems, I simply prune her hard down and new bright green leaves appear.

At the moment, we have had builders outside, hence, she has a slight dusty coating but still she thrives and myself, and it seems, tiny, small spiders at least appreciate her...

Myrtle is, I feel, sadly neglected in modern day cooking which is a great, great shame. Her spicy aromatic leaves once used a lot in cooking centuries past can give so much flavour to a dish.

I use them in place of Bay Leaves to flavour a cheese sauce or to add to a soup or casserole.

If adding to a sauce, I would suggest removing them before serving but if adding to a long, slow baked casserole they can be left in as they will slowly become tender and can then be eaten.

Looking back through history, Myrtle is associated with many ancient legends and traditions in different cultures. One, for example, is her association with the Roman goddess Venus and love and as such, many a bride’s bouquets throughout the subsequent centuries, often included a sprig of Myrtle.

I have had my Myrtle now for a good few years. She was purchased originally from Jekka  McVicar, who is a truly inspirational  herb gardener here in the UK.

I would very strongly recommend looking at her website if you want to know anything more about herbs

If you have an opportunity to visit her fantastic herb farm in South Gloucestershire, near Bristol, on those rare Open Days, then please do seize it! Her Workshops, which I have been fortunate to have gone to in the past, are incredibly instructive and Jekka is so very helpful and generous with advice.

My Myrtle thrives in a large pot. I find she doesn’t like gales or being overly wet. Being in a container, means I can move her around the garden to try and avoid too much wind and rain. Her favourite position by far, seems to be with her back up against a warm wall.

Back to the kitchen...

I’ll try to remember to post some more recipes later in the year for how to use the flowers and berries but for now using the leaves in a warming casserole.

Chestnut, Celeriac and Myrtle Infused Red Wine Casserole.

This is a definite Winter warmer of tasty chestnuts and root vegetables in an aromatic red wine cheesy creamy base infused with spicy myrtle. 

It is really easy to throw together, leave to infuse and then to heat up later to serve to an appreciative audience...

200g whole precooked chestnuts- vacuum packed
I medium celeriac, peeled and diced
800g canned peeled tomatoes-chopped
1 large carrot-copped into batons
1 large onion-roughly chopped
1 small head of medium broccoli -chopped
A little extra British extra virgin rapeseed oil for frying
1 large glass of red wine
500ml of vegetable stock
200ml crème fraiche
12 fresh Myrtle leaves-roughly crushed to release their aromatics
1 tbsp of fresh Thyme, chopped
Grated flavoursome cheddar to garnish-as much as you desire!

In a large casserole pan, heat the oil and gently fry the chopped onion.  

 Once translucent, add the chopped carrot and diced celeriac and continue to fry gently. As they just start to brown, add the red wine and boil off the alcohol for a couple of minutes. 

Then, add the chestnuts (chopped in half), chopped tomatoes, Myrtle leaves, Thyme and vegetable stock. 

Bring to a gentle boil then turn down the heat and simmer.

At this point you could turn off the heat and allow the flavours to thoroughly meet together and infuse and then reheat later or freeze to store for another day.
When ready to cook, place the casserole dish in to the oven at 150c for approximately 45 minutes until the contents are much reduced .

Then add the chopped broccoli on top of the mixture and place a lid on top as you are almost trying to steam it to retain the colour and texture and continue cooking for approximately another 8 minutes. 

 Once the broccoli is cooked and it has reached that stage where all the contents are succulently thick, remove from the heat and gently and reverently stir in the crème fraiche to make an unctuous, creamy mix. 

Top with a very generous serving of your favourite grated cheddar so that it melts and oozes down the sides. 

You will find the tender chopped celeriac has matured wonderfully absorbing all the flavours together including the nutty chestnuts and spicy myrtle.

To make the most of the cheesy, creamy tomato sauce either serve with rice or to be truly decadent, just dunk in some crusty bread!

 Very, very comforting indeed to eat on a cold evening...

I urge you please, to try to grow and cook some Myrtle now...


  1. I've never encountered Myrtle in the culinary context, but you make it sound very nice. I'll swap you some of my Bay leaves for some of your Myrtle, eh?
    And that casserole... "unctuous" hardly does it justice I suspect. Your writing is evidently in the school of Nigel Slater, you know.
    I see that you into history as well as gardening and food. This is one of my interests too - I studied History for my degree at Oxford, back in the 1970s.

    1. Hi Mark-many thanks for your super quick comment! I have to say the writing part of my blog is easy-its the technical part that I find a problem!! At the moment I am struggling to find a way to increase the size of my photos on my blog...
      I do also love the historical part of culinary things like you. I studied history as part of my first degree in Paris many, many years ago. I was going to go on at length about Myrtle in history, but thought that might not interest many people...

  2. That casserole sounds lovely. Do you think Myrtle is different enough from Bay to grow one if you have a Bay tree? I've never tried it but now I'm definitely intrigued.

    1. Hi Liz,
      I would definitely give it a go. The white flowers in the spring are so pretty and the purple berries in the late Summer, are also very good to cook with-I use them instead of Juniper berries and make sauces to serve with oily type fish such as salmon and mackerel or to add to rich casseroles. I don’t eat meat myself, but I do know other people would use them with rich, fatty meat such as pork or lamb.
      As opposed to Bay, the fresh young Myrtle leaves can be eaten if slow cooked.
      If your Myrtle does get big then you can use any twigs or branches on a BBQ as they do in the Mediterranean-the aroma is fantastic and gives an incredible smoked flavour to vegetables and fish. If you don’t have any twigs then just toss on a few leaves. However just one word of warning if you have noisy neighbours. The aroma from toasted BBQ’ed leaves like Bay, can be reminiscent, as a friend of mine commented once, of a certain aroma from his past, rather disreputable, student days... I have to say straightaway, the effects are not at all the same!!

  3. Re the photo size thing: when you upload a photo to your blog, do you not see a line of options presented in a white box below the photo? It should have a place for adding a caption, sizing the photo and positioning it. You may have to hover the mouse over the photo to see this. I use the X-large size for most of my photos.
    If you need some help I am willing to assist if I can. You can email me if you want - address is on my blog profile.

    1. Many thanks indeed Mark for your very helpful advice. I am very appreciative of your very kind help and suggestions. I have done as you suggested and am so pleased! Another little technical skill I have now learnt to do...Gradually I am getting to grips with all this!

      Regarding the photos, you will also be pleased to hear that a good friend of mine visited today and pointed-very tactfully I may add- that my camera has a macro mode and how I might improve my photos...perhaps I should have read that instruction book after all...

  4. I've heard of myrtle but have never cooked with it. I will have to keep my eyes out for some. I have to be honest, bayleaf doesn't do much for me. Plus I have never been able to keep a bayleaf plant alive.

    I do love the sound of your casserole. So perfect for wintry days.

    1. Hi Shaheen,
      Thank you so much for your comment. I would strongly recommend you visit Jekka’s Herb Farm on one of her rare Open Days once you move back down to South Wales. Its just across the Old Severn bridge in to England. On the Open days, Jekka does hold workshops and I’ve done a few of these but she also does free talks twice during the day where she takes a group around the herb farm and these are very interesting indeed as you can ask her about any of the herb plants and she can reel off recipes and what to use it for. It was after one of these days that I came home with my Myrtle!

  5. I have never heard of Myrtle before, thanks for sharing!

    I was going to be purchasing a bay tree this spring... maybe I will get one of both.

    1. Yes do give Myrtle a go too if it will grow in your area- you may need to bring it inside in the Winter. Myrtle hates being waterlogged or too much wind I find too. Best of luck!

  6. I too am new to Myrtle. I'll have to check out availability her ein the States. It's a lovely dish and look good to warm up with on a chilly night!

    1. Hi David,
      I do hope you can find a Myrtle (Myrtus communis) and that it will thrive in your region. Best of luck!


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