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The Perfumed Garden

Carol Saville introduces us to the fragrant world of exotic herbs.


Walking through the Los Angeles garden grown by gardening writer and cookbook author Carol Saville is an adventure in taste and smell. True French sorrel has amazing acidic bite. An allspice plant yields spicy leaves that Saville uses with roast pork or applesauce. Here in the hills off Laurel Canyon Boulevard, Saville has cultivated a gardening cook's paradise. And from this garden has come a new reference and cookbook, "Exotic Herbs" (Henry Holt, $35), full of herbal lore and history, botanical information, gardening instructions, culinary advice and recipes.

What is exotic? It wasn't too long ago that cilantro was almost unknown to the average American cook, that Italian parsley had to be grown from seeds (if you could find them) and that only avid gardeners knew about cucumber-flavored burnet. Today, these herbs are so commonplace that they don't rate an entry in Saville's book. Exotic, then, to Saville is not only the nonindigenous, but the herbs that are currently considered unfamiliar or unusual or having special culinary assets not widely known.

The 60 plants that made the cut range from the unfamiliar anise hyssop, rice paddy herb, samphire and silene to aromatics that are becoming well known in multiethnic communities, among them epazote, kaffir (Asian) lime, curry leaf and lemon grass.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 10, 1997 Home Edition Food Part H Page 2 Food Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
In "The Perfumed Garden" (Sept. 3) about her new book "Exotic Herbs" (Henry Holt), gardening writer Carole Saville's first name was misspelled due to an editing error.

Rosemary sneaked in thanks to Golden Rain and Majorca Pink cultivars. Oregano appears only as Cuban or Mexican oregano. And cilantro gives way to culantro (saw leaf herb) and papaloquelite, both of which have cilantro-like flavor.

The only way basil made the book was in the guise of lesser-known varieties such as African blue basil, which is a hybrid of opal basil and African camphor basil, and clove-flavored East Indian basil, which grows so tall it is also called tree basil.

Another herb that once was "exotic" but now is too common for inclusion is lemon verbena. "I see that chefs use it so much now in desserts," Saville says. Other herbs were eliminated because there simply wasn't space.

Saville, who has lived in Los Angeles for more than a decade, grew all of the 60 herbs in her book and makes sure that other gardeners can as well. "Everything in the book can be purchased as seed or plant," she says. And she has listed sources for each.

"To gardeners, some of the herbs won't be exotic," she says. "But to the general public they will be."

All of the herbs in the book are intended for use in cooking. Sweet violets, for example, make a refreshing spring salad, and superb pink dianthus flowers add a heady scent to sorbets or syrup. A single leaf of Cleveland sage, she says, is enough to flavor an entire chicken.

It was important to Saville that the recipes have broad appeal. "I didn't want to put [the herbs] in my garden just so I could cook a particular ethnic cuisine," she says. "I wanted to incorporate them into my repertoire of recipes."

So she puts African blue basil into vinegar, uses East Indian basil to pep up baked apples, combines Golden Rain rosemary with true French sorrel in vichyssoise, flavors honey with Vietnamese balm and adds papaloquelite to duck tacos. Samphire joins African valerian, silene and other herbs, greens and flowers in a summer salad, and anise hyssop contributes subtle flavor to a rich ice cream.

It's even possible to grow the saffron crocus and harvest enough of the precious stigmas to flavor a dish or two. (The process, however, is laborious, Saville warns, probably best left to the dedicated.)

Some of Saville's plants, as she says matter-of-factly, "just smell rank. Then their character changes in cooking." Rau ram, common in Vietnamese markets, is one of these. "If you try the rau ram salad [a recipe in the book], it's just lovely, " she says. "It's one of the herbs that does, indeed, change character."

Houttuynia, an herb popular in Southeast Asia, "smells almost like meat, it's so strong," she says. It has been included in the book, but without a recipe. Aussie Sweetie basil, on the other hand, is tangy and clove-like, a delight to sniff. It gets a mention in the book, but not a chapter.

Fragrance and flavor aren't the only attributes of herbal ingredients. Admiring the orange-burgundy flower on a tall galangal plant, Saville says, "Is that beautiful, or what?"

With the book done and the garden just about the way she wants it, Saville is about to start all over in a new climate and new terrain. She is moving to Albany, in the Bay Area. Many cuttings and potted plants will go with her, but the bulk of the garden will remain for the next occupant.

It won't be easy for her to leave her garden behind. Many of the herbs were planted from seed or ordered from specialty nurseries in 3-inch pots. And the garden has played a large role in her work. The book's cover photo was taken by Saville's frequent collaborator in what Saville calls "the back 40" of her 1/3-acre property, as were many of the other photos in the book.

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