Herbs are just a hobby, says Carole Saville.
Of course, she did tend Spago's herb garden in the middle '80s when the herb mania was just beginning, she does have upwards of 200 herbs growing in her own back yard and she often designs herb gardens for people. A few years back she designed one for a lawyer named Sandy Tandler, who went on to become Michael Feig's partner in Country Fresh Herbs. A conversation with her is likely to revolve around herbs and involve her offering you some seeds.
This all-consuming sort of hobby apparently began quite innocently in the '70s when she and her husband leased a farm in New Jersey, a 32-mile commute from New York. She planted an herb garden there in the old stone walls of a ruined dairy barn--"just to make use of it," she says.
Then they bought a farm and she began raising goats and doing some pretty ambitious gardening. She recalls with something like surprise that she planted an Elizabethan knot garden (set out in geometric patterns resembling knots), a Belgian espalier fence and a rose garden, all in pre-1800 varieties.
Herbs started looming large in her life at this farm, which dated from about 1740. "Herbs are a link with the past," she says. "You think of people in the Middle Ages raising these herbs and cooking with them."
In 1983 they moved to L.A. "I thought I'd landed in Eden," she says. "You could garden 12 months a year! At first I just planted a couple of herbs--thyme, borage, tarragon. There's nothing like having your own kitchen garden, it always tastes better than anything you can get from the store."
The Spago connection began when Saville's friend Melinda Taylor planted some herbs behind the restaurant and invited her into the project. "It was just the strip on either side of the sidewalk," she says, "not really a production garden. Really, it was a sort of community garden--all the people who lived in the neighborhood wanted to come down and take the tour. But the Spago people did come out and snip chives from it and so on.
"It's a shame people who ate at the restaurant couldn't see it, since it was only open at night. It's hard for a restaurant to do a real production garden, though, because they don't necessarily look beautiful."
She's after beauty as much as flavor. Here are some of the herbs she's interested in now:
Hoja santa, a Mexican herb--"It's beautiful in the garden--big, heart-shaped leaves eight or 10 inches across."
Mexican tarragon, also called Mexican marigold mint--"It's louder than real tarragon."
Cuban oregano--"Not an oregano at all but a fleshy, succulent-type plant, really fragrant."
Two so-called Mexican oreganos : Libbia graveolens and Puliamentha longiflora, "which is pretty in the garden."
Salvia tricolor --"A sage with pink, white and green leaves; to me, they're beautiful."
Salvia clevelandia --"A native sage, a drought-tolerant herb with lavender spikes; it's really strong--I think two leaves under a roasting chicken is plenty."
Saville makes this lemonade with distilled lavender essence from her still, but the lavender "tea" in the recipe here gives equally good results. Dried hibiscus flowers can be purchased in herb and natural food stores or in ethnic markets where Mexican products are sold.
CAROLE SAVILLE'S PINK LAVENDER LEMONADE (From "Cooking With Herbs" by Emelie Tolley and Chris Mead)
5 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar, plus optional 1/2 cup
1/4 cup dried hibiscus flowers (jamaica)
1/4 cup chopped fresh English lavender leaves
2 1/4 cups lemon juice
Fresh lavender flowers for garnish
Combine 2 1/2 cups water with 1 1/2 cups sugar and hibiscus flowers in saucepan. Bring to boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Simmer few minutes to extract color of hibiscus, then remove from heat. Stir in lavender leaves. Allow mixture to cool with lid on.
Strain liquid into large pitcher or jar. Add remaining water and lemon juice, stirring well. Add up to 1/2 cup more sugar, if desired. Just before serving, add ice cubes. Pour into chilled glasses and garnish with lavender flowers. Makes 6 to 8 servings.