If you stand at the south-west corner of Covent Garden Piazza, you may spot the following sign on the market building wall:
JAs BUTLER HERBALIST &
The Butler family’s herb and seed business was in fact was already well established before Charles Fowler’s splendid market building was erected. Butler had started trading at Covent Garden when the market itself was still a jumble of sheds and stalls, and in the early 1820s was already well-known as an authority on herbs and plants.
Kitchiner drew on Butler’s expertise when compiling his cookery manual The Cook’s Oracle. Here, one of our ‘unknown ladies’ outlines the method given in The Cook’s Oracle for drying sweet and savoury herbs:
To Dry Sweet & Savoury Herbs
All vegetables are in the highest state of perfection just before they begin to flower. Cleanse you herbs well from dirt and dust, cut off the roots, separate the bunches into smaller ones and dry them by the heat of a stove or in a dutch oven before a common fire as quick as possible. When perfectly dried, put them in bags and lay them in a dry place. The best way to preserve the flavour is to pick off the leaves as soon as they are dried, and to pound them & put them through a hair sieve and keep in a well stopped bottle.
Basil is in the best state for drying from the middle of August and three weeks after. Knotted Marjoram, the beginning of July and some. Winter Savory the latter end of July and through August. Summer savory the same. Thyme, Lemon Thyme, Orange Thyme during June & July. Mint, latter end of June and during July. Sage, August & September. Tarragon, June, July, August. Chervil, May, June & July. Burnet, June, July & August. Parsly, May, June & July. Fennel same. Elder flowers and Orange flowers, the same.
The listing of seasonal herbs indicates the astonishing variety of plants that could be acquired from the stalls at Covent Garden Market. Some have fallen out of popular usage. Burnet, for instance, which was infused in hot water and taken as a treatment for diarrhoea. Orange thyme and chervil are also hard to get hold of in today’s supermarkets, but the latter is still fairly widely used in French cookery.
Next time you are around Covent Garden, why not take a moment to pay homage to Butler and his business? See if you can spot the sign at the south-west corner of the market building and let your imagination be filled with the sounds and sights of this bustling shopping centre of Regency London…