One of my biggest gardening successes this year has been lemon verbena. This victory has been made all the more profound by contrast. Two years ago, I bought a little lemon verbena plant from a market stall, its pale green, needle-like leaves clustered in a delicate furl. It grew slowly in my conservatory for a few months, before a plague of whitefly descended and slowly sapped the leaves of their springy vitality. I was left with a tragic tangle of spindly, pale twigs and a few yellowed, curling leaves, along with a sticky whitefly residue smothered over the floor and windows where the plant had stood. It was a depressing sight. Undaunted, I still attempted to make tea and ice cream from the leaves, but attempting to sieve small whitefly corpses out of boiling liquid is not one of my favourite kitchen jobs and somewhat hampered my enjoyment of the creative process. The plant eventually perished, robbed of life by a combination of those insidious little creatures and a harsh frost that delivered the final blow after I’d put it outside in the hope that a Samaritan ladybird would come along and deliver me from the whitefly plague.
This year, I searched in vain for a lemon verbena plant to replace the first. I eventually had to resort to ebay, because no garden centre nearby seemed to stock this beauty of a specimen. Why, I don’t know, because the gorgeous, delicate leaves of lemon verbena are a treat both to behold and to eat. They are a wonderful, vibrant green, peculiarly firm and slightly tacky to the touch, elegantly pointed and, if given the right care, bushy and abundant. Their fragrance is incredibly potent, a cross between mint, lemongrass and citrus. They make a beautiful tea, simply steeped in hot water, which manages to be soothing and refreshing at the same time, and feels as if it’s doing you huge amounts of good.
I put my two (two! greater chance of at least one surviving!) new lemon verbena plants in pots outside (less chance of a whitefly infestation if the ladybirds can get to them, I figured), and let the English summer do its worst. A few months later, I have plants two feet high with a plethora of bushy sprigs boasting lush, healthy leaves. Not a whitefly in sight, and enough verbena for a good amount of kitchen experimentation. It’s a far cry from last year, where I managed to salvage a pathetic handful of shriveled leaves and attempted to make one precious batch of ice cream with them. This year, I’ve been snipping sprigs off with abandon, throwing them into the white sauce for a fish pie, chopping them into a potato salad, infusing syrups for poaching fruit and, of course, making multiple cups of soothing tea. I’m dreading the moment the frost arrives and the poor plants drop all that magical foliage, so I’ve been trying to use it as much as possible over the last few weeks.
Hence, this jelly. Since obtaining Diana Henry’s wonderful book Salt Sugar Smoke a couple of years ago, I’ve become even more obsessed with preserving than I was before. Specifically, I’ve been making a lot of jelly. Not the dubious, comes-in-a-block kind that you find at children’s parties, but the kind that involves simmering fruit until soft then letting it drip through a muslin bag, before boiling the resulting liquid with sugar to make a glowing, translucent preserve that livens up sweet and savoury dishes. Because I have an apple tree that throws forth gigantic quantities of fruit in heavy and onerous abundance, all my jellies have been apple-based. It’s a relief to find a recipe that doesn’t involve peeling and coring them – you simply chop them and whack them in a pan with some water, before letting heat, sugar and time do the rest. The fruit is the perfect vehicle for other flavours, and sets to a lustrous bright amber that makes it highly aesthetically pleasing.
I’ve tried Earl Grey jelly, passionfruit jelly and festive apple jelly so far, and decided to experiment this week by adding lemon verbena to an apple jelly. I threw it into the boiling pot in huge handfuls, stalks and all, relishing the abundance of my happy little plants and their lustrous leaves. The herb lends the sweet apple a gorgeous citrus note, its freshness perfuming the golden liquid. This jelly has a particularly beautiful colour, too, a glowing, rusty rose that encapsulates autumn. It works with both sweet and savoury food, although because it is a sweet jelly (you can make savoury ones with vinegar) I like it most on toast or scones. It would also be luscious slathered onto a Victoria sponge, or melted to glaze a cake or tart. You could use other herbs instead of lemon verbena – sage, rosemary and thyme would all work well – but if you can get your hands on this rather special plant, I’d highly recommend it. This is a homage to lemon verbena, and a celebration of my small gardening triumph.
Lemon verbena jelly (makes around 6 x 250ml jars):
- 1.5kg cooking apples
- 1 litre water
- Around 1 – 1.5kg granulated sugar
- 10 bushy sprigs of lemon verbena
- Juice of 1 lemon
- You will also need a jelly bag and preserving jars with lids. A jam funnel is helpful too, for potting the jelly
Roughly chop the cooking apples (no need to peel or core them – that’s the beauty of this recipe!). Put them into a large pan with the water, and bring to the boil. Simmer gently for around 30-40 minutes, until the apples are completely soft – you should be able to crush them against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon.
Line a large jug or bowl (around 2 litre capacity) with the jelly bag, then pour the apple mixture into it. Suspend the bag over the bowl overnight, so the juice can drip gradually into it (I do this by putting a broom between two chairs and tying the bag to the handle). Don’t squeeze the bag – let it drip naturally.
The next day, measure the juice. For every 600ml of juice, add 450g of the granulated sugar. Put the juice and sugar in a large saucepan and bring slowly to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Put a small plate in the freezer (to test for a set later). Have sterilized jars warm in the oven and ready to pot (see below for how to sterilize jars). Throw the lemon verbena (stalks and all) and the lemon juice into the pan and boil for around 30-40 minutes, skimming off any scum that forms. When the jelly has reduced and is golden and syrupy, test for a set – spoon a little jelly onto the cold plate, then leave for a minute. Run your finger down the middle – if the jelly wrinkles and your finger leaves a clean gap, it’s ready. Remove from the heat.
Remove the bits of lemon verbena from the jelly using a wooden spoon. Ladle the jelly into the jars, then screw on the lids. This should keep for a year or two; refrigerate once opened.
To sterilize jars: have a range of jars and lids ready. I often get a number of different sizes ready, so that depending how much jam/jelly is left in the pan towards the end I can adjust accordingly (if you’ve only got 200ml of jam left in the pan during potting, you don’t really want to put it in a 450ml jar). Pre-heat the oven to 120C. Wash the jars and lids in hot, soapy water and put the jars upside down on an oven rack. Heat in the oven for 30 minutes. Add the lids to the oven rack, flat side facing upwards, and heat for a further 5-10 minutes. Turn the oven off and leave the hot jars in there until ready to pot the jam. I also sterilize a jam funnel and a metal ladle in the oven for the same amount of time as the lids, just to be on the safe side.