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Latest Trend Has Old Tradition : Fresh Herbs Sell Big in Market Produce Sections

February 26, 1987|JOAN DRAKE | Times Staff Writer

Today's top chefs and cooks are choosing only the freshest recipe ingredients--including herbs used to enhance the flavors of other foods. The resulting demand for fresh herbs not only has encouraged a resurgence of the age-old custom of raising your own plants, but also has spawned a nationwide industry which markets freshly cut herbs.

In the early 1900s, almost every American home had at least a small herb garden. Easy access to high quality, commercially dried herbs and changes in life style were no doubt responsible for the decline in growing herbs during the past few decades. But a revival is now being seen--the public is once again showing a major interest in raising their own herbs, according to spokespersons at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, Arcadia, and the Huntington Botanical Gardens, San Marino, both of which have herb gardens for viewing.

This trend is also evidenced in increased sales reported by nurseries, such as Taylor Gardens, Vista, Calif., that specialize in herbs. An informal poll of several nursery owners revealed the most popular choices include basil (sweet, as well as the other varieties), tarragon, rosemary, oregano, dill, thyme, parsley and bay trees. Since most of these plants can be grown even in containers, it's possible for those with very limited space to still raise their own herbs.

When Time Is Important

Of course, not everyone who wants to cook with fresh herbs has the time or inclination to grow their own. The solution for this group is cut fresh herbs now readily available at supermarkets, specialty stores and at produce stands. Full lines of high quality products are being raised and marketed by Chino's Farm in Rancho Santa Fe, the Green House in Encinitas, Frieda's Finest in Los Angeles and other wholesale operations.

Formerly annuals were only seasonally available, but growers are now raising quality plants in hot houses and can market them year round. Tom Chino reports some of his customers claim basil grown indoors is not as aromatic as that raised outside. But Paul Friedman of the Green House believes that having total control over the growing conditions enables him to produce the highest quality basil on a consistent basis.

Growth estimates of the fresh-herb market vary, but local supermarket produce buyers are in total agreement that sales of these herbs have skyrocketed during the last two to three years. They universally agree this increase can be attributed to the public's desire for fresh, healthful foods. John Mitchell of Ralph's Grocery Company adds a further note with his belief that many people see herbs as an alternative seasoning for salt. Top sellers are basil, rosemary, dill (regular and baby), chives, mint and Italian parsley. Each year brings new additions to the selection.

Some stores are selling the herbs packaged in specially designed zippered-style plastic bags which the manufacturer claims inhibits ultra-violet rays and prolongs life. They recommend leaving the herbs in these bags for storage and standing the bags in the refrigerator, rather than laying them flat. Other markets are selling the herbs in small bunches that the shopper can pick up, look at and sniff. Irvine Ranch Market's Steve Morgan believes being able to do this makes the herbs much more appealing and credits the approach for their increased sales.

With the exception of basil, tests conducted by the University of California Cooperative Extension found herb quality was best maintained at temperatures close to 32 degrees. They believe the optimum storage temperature for basil is 40 to 45 degrees. Other experiments stored basil in zippered-style plastic bags at temperatures up to 60 degrees with good results. Most herb experts consulted, however, still recommended basil be stored in the warmest part of the refrigerator. Morgan suggests storing herbs under refrigeration, covered in a firm plastic container with a slightly dampened paper towel on the bottom.

Although some fresh herbs hold better than others, all are intended to be used immediately. The large-leaf herbs such as basil should not be kept for more than a couple of days at the most. Thyme and rosemary may last up to a week or more, but the quality will deteriorate. With top quality, fresh herbs so readily available, it's easy to purchase herbs needed when they will be used. But for people who enjoy growing plants, another option is to raise the herbs used most often and purchase those that are out of season or used only occasionally.

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