If there were to be a contest for the most sorely neglected culinary herb, lovage would certainly rank among the top five candidates. I first encountered this member of the parsley family two decades ago, not so much because I’d heard tales of its tastiness, but because I was curious to learn how a plant once so ubiquitous was now almost entirely unknown to cultivation. It’s not for lack of history: native to Southwestern Asia and Southern Europe, lovage was cultivated by Romans, who called it “levisticum,” a contraction of ligusticum apium “Ligurian celery,” as the celery-like species was particularly common in the western Italian region of Liguria. (Hence lovage in English, through the Old French, “luvesche, and old English, “loveache.”
In Roman times, the seeds, considered a digestive, were chewed; the stems (which are curiously hollow) were candied; and the leaves widely used in Roman cooking. Its medicinal attributes abounded as well – lovage was a principal ingredient in cures for rheumatism, jaundice and sore throats, and its leaves and stalks made into a tea for use as a diuretic and to treat minor stomach ailments. (Lovage does indeed contain various diuretic and antimicrobial compounds.) A preparation made from its roots, added to bath water or made into a salve, also was thought to help clear up skin problems. Lovage leaves were even placed in travelers’ shoes to soothe weary feet. So valued was lovage that when at the beginning of the 9th century Charlemagne promulgated the edict Capitulare de villis vel curtis Imperii Caroli Magni mandating the herbs to be grown in each of his imperial domains, lovage was prominent among them. A popular edible throughout the Midde Ages, lovage crossed to America with the first colonists, considered an indispensable part to the early spring diet when other types of vegetables were still many months away, and continued to be widely grown well into the 1800s. But then, as with many other ancient plants, the cultivation of lovage fell into desuetude, pushed aside by the rise of modern pharmaceuticals and the advent of petro-farming, which made the once rare and expensive celery common year round.
Today it’s a rare herb garden that contains lovage, and that’s a real shame.
Why grow this historical horticultural curiosity, you ask? Two very good reasons: not only is lovage an extremely handsome addition to your garden (4-6’ tall with finely cut, dark green leaves), but it’s an extremely tasty one too: with a flavor akin to celery but stronger, almost salty, lovage is the perfect adjunct to late summer veggies. Sprinkled on fresh garden tomatoes (my absolute favorite) the mouth comes alive; mixed with new potatoes, wow! (For more on that, see the recipe below.) In fact, lovage is a wonderful adjunct to soups, stews, or meat dishes, anywhere in fact that the flavor of celery might be wanted without the concomitant crunch.
Best of all, unlike celery, lovage is completely easy to grow, either from seed or root divisions. (The real only difficulty may be finding seed: Johnny’s has it HERE.) In a sunny fertile spot, it will soon tower over its neighbors, providing you with an ample supply of greens all season long. (Lovage can also be quickly blanched then frozen, or dried, for winter use.) Annual composting in the fall is recommended, as is pruning off flowers and old stems after blooming to promote fresh, young growth. Pests are rare: leaf minors are the only major problem I’ve noticed and can generally be easily controlled by organic means.
Oh, and remember that part about the hollow stems? Here’s a sure way to delight your Bloody Mary imbibing guests: lovage “straws” that suffuse the booze with a delightful herbal twang as you sip.
Gotta love it.
Here are four of my favorite lovage recipes:
Warm Potato Salad with Lovage
1 1/2 pounds new potatoes, red and white, unpeeled
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup cup chopped fresh lovage
About 3 to 4 tablespoons white wine vinegar
About 1/4 cup good quality olive oil
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the potatoes and let cook, over moderate heat, for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until tender; they should feel tender throughout when pierced with a small, sharp knife. Drain and let cool slightly. In a serving bowl or salad bowl, mix the mustard, salt, pepper and lovage. Cut the warm potatoes into chunks and place in the serving bowl. Add the vinegar and oil while the potatoes are still hot and toss well. Taste for seasoning adding more vinegar, oil, salt or pepper as needed. Serves 4 to 6
Lobster and Potato Salad with Lovage
2 1/2 pounds live lobsters, cooked and meat removed, or 8 ounces cooked lobster meat, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 pound red bliss potatoes, cooked and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 tablespoons chopped shallots
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup chopped lovage leaves
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
red leaf lettuce for garnish
chopped fresh chives for garnish
In a large bowl, combine the lobster and potatoes. Toss gently, to keep the potatoes from breaking up.
In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, sour cream, lemon juice, shallots, parsley, and lovage leaves. Combine well. Add the mayonnaise mixture to the lobster and potato mixture and toss gently until combined. Season with salt and pepper.
Line 4 salad plates with the lettuce and mound the salad on top. Sprinkle with chives. Serves 4 as a main course.
Corn Chowder with Lovage
1/2 cup bacon, diced
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup chopped onion
6 cups chicken broth
1 1/2 pounds red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1/2-inch dice
3 cups fresh corn kernels, cut from the cob
2 cups half and half
1/3 cup chopped lovage leaves
salt and pepper to taste
Cook the bacon in a large soup pot over medium heat until crisp. Add butter and melt. Add the onions to the pot and saute until wilted, about 7 minutes. Add the broth, and the potatoes. Bring the broth to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Add the corn, the lovage, and the half and half and continue to cook for an additional 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serves 6. NOTE: Do not allow the chowder to boil after adding the half and half or the soup will curdle.
Marinated Cherry Tomatoes with Lovage
1 pint red cherry tomatoes
1 pint yellow pear cherry tomatoes
1/4 cup finely chopped lovage leaves
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
In a small bowl, combine the tomatoes, lovage, oil vinegar, and salt and pepper. Cover and let marinate at room temperature for at least an hour. Serve at room temperature. Serves 4.