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Acquiring a taste for lovage

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05/18/2007
Acquiring a taste for lovage

The first time I bit into a lovage leaf, I spat it out.  It tasted like celery on steroids, and then some.  Although its taste wasn't bitter, it was incredibly pungent.  But I planted some lovage (Levisticum officinalis) in my herb garden anyway, simply for the sake of completeness.  Then one day, needing to make a chicken broth and not having any celery, I lit upon the idea of using a bit of lovage instead for its celery-like perfume.  I included only a small branch, yet I could distinctly taste its flavor in the broth...but in a not-disagreeable way.

Yet since then, my use of lovage in the kitchen remained pretty much limited to the occasional sprig in the soup pot.  Until recently.  Since I have grown the plant in my Normandie potager, I have somehow grown inordinately fond of it.  I've learned to appreciate its pure and strong flavor of celery, yes, but with definite undertones of fenugreek and curry leaf.  In fact, I've now gotten to where my salads taste bland to me if they don't contain a few leaves of lovage, torn into individual leaflets and tossed in with the other greens of the moment.  I've become so addicted to its flavor that this spring I hovered anxiously over my dormant lovage clump, eagerly waiting for the first red-tinged leaves to emerge from the soil.  When they timidly unfurled, I pounced on them, mercilessly slicing them off and tossing them triumphantly into my spring salad basket.  Their taste seemed to me utterly delicious.

Lovage is a hardy perennial closely related to celery.  It has been appreciated for its reputed medicinal properties (stimulant, diaphoretic, emmenagogue, and carminative) probably since prechristian times.  Grow lovage in full sun, choosing a spot with rich, well-drained soil.  Make sure you give it enough room to develop, as transplanting it is as big a job as moving a large shrub.

Unless you want to harvest the seeds (which can be crushed and mixed with sea salt flakes to make a delicious "celery" salt), cut down the inflorescences at ground level as they start to go to seed.  Leave them until then, though, as the yellow blossoms, similar to those of dill, are highly attractive to beneficial insects.  But the plant tends to lapse into a slow dormancy, or at least a ratty-looking stage, if allowed to ripen all its seed.
Thus deadheaded, lovage will continue to produce bright celery green foliage until hard frost, when it goes entirely dormant.

One thing I've learned about lovage is that its vigor varies widely according to soil and climate.  When I grew it in Indiana, perhaps it was shy because it knew I didn't like it very much.  Whatever the reason, it remained about the size of a conventional clump of celery all summer long.  In Normandie, however, it is a gigantic plant.  The clump measures a full 5 feet across in leaf, and when in flower, the stalks tower over my head.

You can propagate lovage by seed, but be patient, as its germination is slow and irregular.  The seed should be planted immediately after it ripens (like that of angelica) as it loses viability very quickly.  For faster results, buy a plant or obtain a division from a friend.  All you need is a piece of root (a huge, fangy, taproot affair) with an eye or two.  Plant with this eye a couple of inches below the surface of the soil.  Divisions can be planted in early spring or early fall.

Once established in your garden, lovage makes a handsome and dramatic plant.  It has no insect or disease problems that I know of.  Of course, once you've got it growing, you'll have to learn to love its flavor!  You can start out like I did, adding a small branch to chicken or beef stocks.  Then start experimenting with other ways of appreciating the bold, invigorating flavor of lovage.  For instance, pound the leaves with a bit of garlic, salt, black peppercorns, blanched almonds, and olive oil.  Then pat this mixture over the outside of a rack of lamb before putting it in the oven.  You'll find lamb and lovage have a near-magical affinity for each other.  When good apples start to appear, try apple-lovage beignets.  Just tuck a lovage leaf and an apple slice inside your favorite fritter batter, and fry.  Mmmm.  Before long, you'll find you too have acquired a taste for lovage!  Even--dare I say it--loving it?

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